So far here is what we know, or think we know...or...what has been reported about Mats Zuccarello's pending unrestricted free agency and the prospects of the Rangers signing him to an extension.
- The Rangers have not made any meaningful extension offers to Zuccarello's camp.
- Zucc wants to stay with the Rangers for a bunch of reasons. Namely, the team is good, he likes it here, he can easily fly home and some other more anecdotal reasons.
- Zuccarello's camp has not engaged in any meaningful discussions with the Rangers front office.
- A lot of teams would like to have a player like Zucc. Derrr.
- The Rangers, and specifically Alain Vigneault, would like to keep his services. Price and term willing, of course. Here's what AV said after Tuesday's practice:
"I believe that Mats is a very good hockey player, I would prefer that he stay a New York Ranger. I have made that very clear to management. This young man has a lot of upside and I do believe that he can play much better than he has so far this year, he can contribute at a more regular pace, but I do see him as part of our future. At the end of the day this is a business and if he wants to stay and we want him, there has to be common ground, so, that is where that is at now."
- We do not know if any would-be trade partners have proposed trade offers involving Zuccarello. We also don't know if the Rangers have shopped him.***
***Katie Strang of ESPN considers the Rangers buyers, which should come as a surprise to exactly zero people. Citing a "source familiar with the team's thinking," Strang claims that it is unlikely Zuccarello will go anywhere in a trade, and proposes some ideas on what the Rangers may be looking for. Take it for whatever it's worth, though that sourcing sounds rather tepid at best. [ESPN]
So what are we actually looking at here? Zuccarello is undoubtedly a strong player that will be very difficult to replace through a trade, internally, or on the free agent market. Take a look at how he compares to the league utilizing Own The Puck's usage adjusted metrics "HERO" charts (created by Domenic Galamini, @mimicohero on the Twitter). These charts compile stats from 2012-13 to present and compare against the top 390 forwards (630+ 5v5 TOI):
Over the past two seasons, Zuccarello has helped his team generate substantially more shots from higher probability shooting areas than league average.
I repeat: Mats Zuccarello is awesome and he cannot be easily replaced. In a cap-controlled market, it behooves a team to pay for rare assets that can perform at a level that is well-above league average. Zucc does this, and should get paid.
That said, I am of the opinion that if you break down his annual stats, and use the mainstream media's current narrative of underachieving performance against him a bit ([Newsday] [NY Post] [NY Daily News]), the Rangers might be able to drive down the price and get him to extend for a reasonable long-term deal. And who knows, maybe the extension could be discounted even further based on internal positional flexibility. The Rangers have wingers, whereas centers like Brassard were scarce at the time of signing. Just thinking out loud here. Armchair GMing, if you will.
I think that a fair price and term is something comparable to Derick Brassard's 5 year, $25 million extension ($5M AAV) signed this past summer. I would certainly pay that for a scarce commodity like Zucc, cap willing (and that is a big if at this point, considering the Canadian Dollar situation and the unlikelihood that the NHLPA will vote for the 5% escalator on the cap because of escrow concerns). Replacing his production is spending on a top 90 or so forward. Those aren't readily available. They also aren't cheap.
But the Rangers have to ask Zucc to dance right now. He cannot be allowed to get onto the open market, where teams with more cap space can outdistance the Rangers in meeting an asking price.
So is the media narrative accurate? Is he "struggling" this year?
Kind of. The narrative is that his point production is down this season. That's pretty much it. It isn't as nuanced as I will make it here.
2013-14 5v5 P/60: 2.17 (1st)
2014-15 5v5 P/60: 2.05 (3rd)
Not really much of a difference at even strength.
2013-14 PP P/60: 5.07 (2nd) - 201 PP Min
2014-15 PP P/60: 2.16 (6th) - 83 PP Min
His power play production is a culprit. Then again, the second PP unit hasn't exactly lit it up, often getting the tail of whatever mess the first PP has left behind. And I have been screaming for a while that the PP has not been staffed correctly. I want to see Martin St. Louis and Mats Zuccarello on each flank of the 1-3-1/Umbrella, creating for a larger presence (Hayes, Kreider) down low and/or setting up Marty's unbelievably lethal one-timer. That's what I want. But let's leave that discussion for another time.
Everything else about Zucc's game, beyond the PP, is generally fine or well above-average as compared to other top 6 forwards. Over the past two seasons he has left little doubt that he is a player that will be exceedingly difficult to replace. At any price. But there are noteworthy drops in his production from last season that can be exposed at the bargaining table.
The chart above reveals that Zuccarello has seen a number of his "traditional" stat categories decrease at 5v5. I don't personally worry too much about his shot rate, which is often complained about. The guy has never been shoot first, and the slight dip in his goal rate is largely due to a near 1% dip in his sh%. Really, not a big deal.
Zuccarello's true value comes from his ability to make others around him, namely goal-scorers and triggers with good releases, more lethal. He is a creative playmaker who can draw puck-watchers and find seams to hit shooters on the tape. Creating time and space for others is important. His 2013-14 Setup Pass rate, which is a formula estimate of passes that resulted in a shot on goal (championed by Rob Vollman), was 8th in the league last season. He trailed the likes of Evgeni Malkin, Joe Thornton, Sidney Crosby, Tyler Seguin, Henrik Sedin, and Matt Duchene. That isn't bad company.
Most perplexing though is how much his first assist rate has nosedived this season, falling to just half of what it was last year. Instead of making the passes that directly result in goals, it seems he is racking up secondary assists. At first I was concerned that he was deferring to Nash, or not getting the puck as much to facilitate. But just 3 of his 8 5v5 secondary assists come on Nash goals. The others are a mish-mash of Brassard and one-offs. He sure seems like he is setting other players up at a decent rate, eye-test wise. But he isn't getting as many primary assists out of it. It warrants digging deeper to find a possible mitigating circumstance that has hurt his first assist rate.
Aside from his on-ice goals for %, which can be easily explained by the presence of Rick World-Dominating Nash on his line, all of his play-driving percentages at all situations 5v5 have declined. However, that is true for the entire team, and his Corsi Relative and Fenwick Relative to his teammates are actually better than last season. The Rangers should probably not mention that, other than anecdotally.
None of this necessarily points to a marked decline in quality of play for the unrestricted free-agent to be. But it is there nonetheless. Data can be manipulated for the arguments you want to make. Or, put more accurately, you can formulate positive and negative arguments based on how you view the data and draw conclusions about what it says in context.
I honestly hope that the Rangers have someone with even a baseline understanding of the major analytics talking points. Someone who can marshal a compelling argument that Mats Zuccarello is a player worth paying, but can also reason with his agent that the high end of their asking price does not coincide with data suggesting his best year might be behind him (small sample or not). It's worthwhile for the Rangers front office to at least argue that Zuccarello may have had a career year, and while they have faith in his production rebounding, it wouldn't make sense to pay him like he will continue trending upwards.
The Rangers need Zuccarello. He wants to be here. And there is a price that makes sense for everyone. But the Rangers have to get out on the dance floor and bust a few moves to get things going in the right direction. Waiting around with their backs against the wall will only result in lost opportunity and, possibly, the loss of an irreplaceable asset.