I doubt there is a player who embodies both what it means to be and what it’s like to be a New York Ranger better than Mats Zuccarello.
The lovable Norwegian is everything you want out of a hockey player. Like a puppy who is determined to get the ball you’re keeping from him, Zuccarello plays the game with reckless abandon for his own safety. He throws checks relentlessly, gets into skirmishes with players three times his size, goes to the gritty areas of the ice, and, oh yeah, is good at hockey.
This year Zuccarello has been at the center of a rather lively debate: Was Zuccarello good on a bad team, or was Zuccarello struggling and thus a part of why the Rangers were bad?
Zuccarello finished the year with a 16-37-53 line in 80 games. On the surface that total is right in line with his career high (26-35-61 in 15-16) and his career low (15-34-49 in 14-15) in full NHL seasons.
As pass-first as a hockey player can be, Zuccarello’s production has always been tied into who he was paired with. Under Alain Vigneault, Zuccarello avoided the scrutiny held to most players, and was often used pretty much the way his talents demanded. This year, on average, he saw 2:45 a night on the man advantage (second behind only Mika Zibanejad among forwards), plus 18:55 a night in all other situations (first among forwards). He was the Rangers’ leading scorer at 53 points, as sad as that may be.
I always balked at the ideology that Zuccarello was having a “bad” year. When teams aren’t doing well, those who don’t embrace analytics often look to the tired and true “the best player isn’t good enough” narrative and push it to the limit. I think that, more than anything else, was the cause of the above mentioned debate.
As an example, here’s Zuccarello’s stats this year compared to his full-season averages:
Are the stats down? Yes, they are. Are they down significantly? No, they’re not – certainly not bad enough to be the sole reason why the Rangers’ offense struggled, no?
Now that we’ve maintained Zuccarello’s offense wasn’t the problem, what about everything else? Ironically enough, there is a case to be made that his fancy stats weren’t as good as they could have been.
His corsi for was 46% this year, which is significant down from the 50.6% he’s been at for his career. 2015-2016 was the only other time he was below 50%, and that year he finished at 48%. His corsi rel (relative to the team average) was still in positive territory at 0.31% this year, but that’s still way below his other lowest total (again, 2015-2016) of a 0.94, and far below the 4.55% he was at last year.
That said, he was still a better possession players than his peers (as sad as that also might be), which probably speaks more to the team than it does to Zuccarello.
Could there have been more offense? Of course. With Zuccarello there’s always a single negative rub: he doesn’t shoot the puck when he should. If there was a “missed opportunities to take a shot in a dangerous area/60” Zuccarello’s numbers would top the league by 4000%. This year the Rangers needed Zuccarello to be something he wasn’t, more of a goal scorer, and I think that plays a role in the media’s “he hasn’t been good enough” as well.
Still, Zuccarello brings so much more to the table. Those mind-bending passes that almost look as though he is truly a wizard and can open a portal on the ice. Remember that time Zuccarello passed the puck to a Rangers who WASN’T EVEN OVER THE BOARDS YET for a breakout? Yeah, you get a whole lot of that, too.
That said, I think it’s fair to say the Rangers could have expected more from Zuccarello. Just, not as much as people would have you believe. Zuccarello had a pretty normal season compared to his career averages, and with all the injuries and movement in players, I’d say he was just fine.
Final Grade: B+
*5v5 data via Corsica.hockey
2018 Report Cards: Marc Staal