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What does the future hold for Mats Zuccarello?

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New York Rangers v Ottawa Senators

The New York Rangers aren’t done yet.

Not after a trade deadline that saw their roster stripped of more integral pieces of this team. The Rangers are rebuilding, and rebuilds are synonymous with a plethora of changes. They’ve seen the start, but until they’re once again Stanley Cup contenders, the changes will continue to come.

And one change could come with Mats Zuccarello. His name was frequently mentioned in trade rumors at the 2018 deadline, but ultimately no deal was reached and he remains in a Rangers’ sweater. But the 2017-18 season is coming to a close and the Rangers are going to resume trade talks soon. Whether those trade talks include him is unknown, so it’s not clear what the future holds Zuccarello and the Rangers.

The Rangers have to weigh whether they can find a return that can match what he brings to this team.

That return may depend on the other wingers available on the market. There may be a number of available free agent wingers on July 1st. Former Rangers Rick Nash and Michael Grabner may be available, as could Evander Kane, James Neal, James van Riemsdyk, and David Perron. There’s also Patrick Maroon, Thomas Vanek, Riley Nash, and Radim Vrbata who are set to become free agents and could fit the needs of teams looking to add a winger.

*Salary cap data via CapFriendly

Like Zuccarello, who has one year and a $4.5 million cap hit remaining on his contract after this season, there are players who are signed through next season that could be available via trade. There was speculation surrounding some of those players at the deadline as well. Max Pacioretty, captain of the Montreal Canadiens, and his $4.5 million cap hit could be on the move this offseason. So could Mike Hoffman of the rebuilding Ottawa Senators and his $5.19 million cap hit.

The availability of these wingers could determine Zuccarello’s future, since they could set the market price. If the asking price for Hoffman or Pacioretty is the same as what the Rangers are seeking for Zuccarello, that could keep him in New York because teams in search of a winger may value them higher. As for free agents, if teams can acquire a winger that fills their needs without giving up any assets, that may be their preference — even if Zuccarello is more valuable than some of the free agents available.

The Rangers have needs that have to be filled this offseason. As much as they can add pieces through the draft, they also need to have NHL-ready players to fill the gaps throughout this lineup. Trading Zuccarello could help them do that.

...but that all assumes that the Rangers resume those trade talks.

Zuccarello’s value to the Rangers will depend on how they proceed with the rest of their forwards. Management could feel it’s more beneficial to move a player like restricted free agent Ryan Spooner, both in terms of contract situation and potential return. And if they move a number of other players like they did at the deadline, the Rangers will have more gaps to fill, and a gap they may not want to create is the one that would be formed if Zuccarello is moved.

The Rangers already moved Nash and Grabner at the deadline, and there’s no guarantee either return. In Grabner, the Rangers had a key source of two-way play at even-strength and on the penalty kill. And with Nash, the Rangers had a contributor on both sides of the ice in all situations. Trading Zuccarello would only deepen that hole because he’s not just an offensive generator, but reliable in his own zone — and he plays in all situations.

In three of the last four seasons that Zuccarello’s been a mainstay on this roster, he led the team in scoring with 59 points in 2016-17, 61 in 2015-16, and 59 in 2013-14. And this season, for the third consecutive year, he’s on top of the Rangers’ scoring charts with 52 points in 78 games and is second in 5-on-5 points (30).

Not having a dominant scorer is another issue for the Rangers in itself, but it doesn’t take away from what Zuccarello accomplished and how he’s contributed to his team over the years. His contributions have been fairly consistent despite progressively taking on more challenging minutes the last few seasons. Through all of that, his underlying numbers have still been above average relative to his teammates, as they have been throughout his career in New York.

*5v5 data via Corsica.hockey

It was technically a down year for Zuccarello — he’s on pace to accumulate his lowest point total since 2014-15 and his 5-on-5 scoring rate is the lowest of his career. The Rangers may be concerned that this is just him inevitably declining with age, and if that’s the case it increases the chances that he’s moved. On the other hand, they may recognize that the system and environment in New York just wasn’t as conducive to success this season. If so, then his production really isn’t a concern, and the preference may be to retain him since that ability to perform, even in less than ideal situations, would be a positive influence on their younger, developing players.

The Rangers’ priority next season — as much as it is winning, like any team in this league — is to develop their younger players so they’re a contender for years to come. While the Rangers want to be a younger team, there needs to be experienced veterans to help them develop. Zuccarello can be one of those players. He’s worked well with one of the Rangers’ most highly touted prospects, Filip Chytil. He’s also taken on a greater leadership role since much of their veteran core had been stripped away, and could be an encouraging indication of what’s to come.

That leadership presence is another important consideration. The Rangers bought out Dan Girardi, traded Derek Stepan, and then at the deadline traded both McDonagh and Nash. That’s four players from their leadership core — their captain and three alternates — gone, and all that is left is Marc Staal and Zuccarello. Jesper Fast, Chris Kreider, Mika Zibanejad, Kevin Hayes, and Brady Skjei, assuming they’re all a part of this team next season, could be tasked with providing some guidance to their younger players; the team could look to add a veteran leader via free agency as well. But instead of having to replace something that’s already there, they may opt to keep Zuccarello and the heart and soul mentality that he embodies.

The decision of whether to move Zuccarello won’t be made lightly by the Rangers’ front office. They’ll have to contemplate whether he’s more valuable to this team’s future as a trade asset or as a part of their roster moving forward. However they proceed, it’ll be with the goal of building a Stanley Cup contender for years to come. The question is whether that contender will be built with or without Zuccarello.