Mats Zuccarello leads the New York Rangers in scoring with 31 points through 40 games, and it’s not the first time in his career he’s been a pacesetter.
In fact, in three of the four seasons that he has been a mainstay on this roster, Zuccarello led the team in scoring – in 2016-17 (59 points), 2015-16 (61 points), and 2013-14 (59 points); the only season he wasn’t atop the scoring charts was in 2014-15, when he was fifth in scoring with 49 points.
Because of his play, highlighted by his scoring, he’s moved up in terms of ice time.
Prior to 2013-14, Zuccarello had yet to complete a full season at the NHL level. In 2012-13, he only played 15 regular season games (eight points); the season prior, he only played 10 games (three points). In his first NHL season (2010-11), he played just over half a season and tallied 23 points in 42 games.
Zuccarello has emerged as one of the most integral pieces of the Rangers’ core for a number of reasons. He’s responsible in his own zone and has maintained that despite his zone start ratio progressively lowering each season. His playmaking skills and vision are exceptional, and he’s an embodiment of the traditional “heart and soul” mentality while maintaining his skilled game.
This season, Zuccarello has maintained his high-caliber play on both sides of the ice. As the team’s leading scorer, it’s his offensive contributions that stick out the most. But those contributions go much deeper than just what’s on the scoresheet.
A fundamental piece of offensive generation is entering the zone. Corey Sznajder’s tracking data (which includes all but 16 games this season) quantifies the Rangers’ zone entries and how they enter the zone. This season, Zuccarello ranks third on the team in terms of total entries per 60 minutes, behind only Kevin Hayes and Boo Nieves. Of his total entries, they’re split between carries and dump-ins. Compared to the rest of the team, his dump-ins per 60 are second highest, while his carry-ins per 60 rank third.
Zuccarello’s abilities span further than just entering the zone. He’s an excellent puck mover, and that is put on display once he’s in the offensive zone. But he has a pass first mentality, which has been at issue at times, because he’s literally passed up prime shooting opportunities.
At first glance of Sznajder’s shot contribution data, Zuccarello doesn’t exactly stand out. In terms of total shot contribution per 60, he’s only ahead of Michael Grabner, Nieves, Jesper Fast, and Paul Carey on offense (plus all defensemen) – all of whom aren’t near the caliber player Zuccarello is.
When those total shot contributions are instead sorted by just shots (per 60), Zuccarello moves even further down. All of the Rangers’ defensemen, besides Marc Staal, move ahead of him in this category, and only two of the four forwards that trailed him before remain behind him (Carey and Nieves).
The fact that Zuccarello isn’t a shoot-first player isn’t anything new. Going back to his first complete NHL season, his individual Corsi for per 60 numbers aren’t exactly overwhelming; in 2013-14, his 11.83 shot attempts per 60 ranked 12th on the team. The following season, his 12.08 per 60 were the 8th highest. The 10.37 shot attempts per 60 accumulated in 2015-16 ranked 13th, as did his 11.2 per 60 in 2016-17. And his 10.66 shot attempts per 60 this season are 10th on the team. In all but the 2013-14 season, though, his on-ice statistics, especially his Corsi for per 60, ranked higher among his teammates than his individual metrics – which is an indication that he helps bolster the Rangers’ offense in more ways than just individual shots for.
Through 24 games this season, Zuccarello has attempted a shot 65 times in all situations. Thirty eight have gone on goal and 27 have missed the net; 35 of those 65 shot attempts have been scoring chances. Zuccarello’s shot attempts have primarily been wrist shots (43 of 65), but he’s also added four deflections, 12 one-timers, three rebounds, and three backhands. Forty of his 65 shot attempts have been taken at 5-on-5 (25 on goal, 15 missed; 28 scoring chances). All three of his rebound shot attempts have come at 5-on-5, as have two of his four deflections, seven of his one-timers, two of his backhands, and 26 of his wrist shots.
When sorting this season’s tracking data by shot assists, Zuccarello moves up the rankings along with some of the leading scorers on this team (Hayes, Pavel Buchnevich, Mika Zibanejad, and J.T. Miller) in terms of shot assist per 60. His primary shot assists (10.15 per 60) place him behind only Miller and Zibanejad.
As for his raw numbers through 24 games, Zuccarello leads the Rangers in all situations in passes (with 166) and primary shot assists (101). His 49 secondary shot assists are second only to Miller’s 52 and his 16 tertiary shot assists are second to Shattenkirk’s 30 and tied with Desharnais. Of his 166 passes, 84 have come at 5-on-5 (second to Miller). He’s also trailing only Miller in primary shot assists, with 58. As for secondary shot assists though, Buchnevich Shattenkirk, McDonagh, Desharnais, Hayes, and Miller are all ahead of Zuccarello’s 19.
This translates on the scoresheet as well. There’s been a common theme in Zuccarello’s scoring throughout his career – he’s earned the majority of his points by collecting assists. This year, 23 of his 31 points are assists (leads team). Last year, he led the team with 44 assists. The season prior, he finished second in assists with 35 (he also was second in goal scoring with 26). Zuccarello accumulated 34 assists in 2014-15 (third highest on team), and he led the way with 40 in 2013-14. The majority of points in his first NHL season were assists as well, with 17 out of 23 points being helpers. The only season that Zuccarello’s scoring deviated from this trend was in 2011-12, when his three points consisted of two goals and an assist.
Zuccarello’s offensive generation has continued to be an asset for the Rangers this season, as he leads the team with 31 points (eight goals, 23 assists) in 40 games. Eleven of his points have been scored on the power play (one goal, 10 assists). Three of his goals have been game-winners, two of which have come in overtime.
Of his 20 even strength points, 16 have been scored at 5-on-5 (trailing Hayes and Buchnevich, who have 17 points). Thirteen of his 16 points have been primary. His scoring rates don’t stand out as much as usual; one reason is because of the ice time he’s received, as he leads the offense with a 29.02 time on ice percentage. For the ice time he was receiving, a forward of his caliber certainly could have been scoring more, and this is why some have considered him an unproductive player in terms of scoring in November – at least at 5-on-5, since he was still earning points in other situations. At that time, he was scoring at a rate of 1.48 points per 60, which was above the team average, but ranked 10th among his teammates. His underlying numbers, though, were indicative that his scoring would improve.
Since then, he’s added nine 5-on-5 points, which leads the team in points over the last 19 games. And in all situations, he’s tallied 15 points in these last 19 games. Now, Zuccarello’s 1.74 per 60 5-on-5 scoring rate has moved up to 8th and his primary point production (1.41 per hour) ranks 6th. His 47.04 Corsi for percentage is plus-0.81 relative to his teammates, and his expected goals for percentage (50.37) is also above average relative to his teammates (plus-1.67).
Zuccarello’s leading the Rangers in terms of scoring, and while that production is the most tangible aspect of his game, his contributions span further than the points he collects – points that he’s continued to accumulate despite playing in a number of line combinations.
Over the years, Zuccarello’s transformed into one of the most essential players on the Rangers; he’s continuing to prove that this season as well.