Mats Zuccarello Trade: Breaking It All Down

Knowing something hard is coming doesn’t make it any easier.

As much as fans were prepared for Mats Zuccarello’s eventual departure — now permanent, as he makes his way to Dallas — it didn’t make it any easier when the news dropped. And when already emotional fans saw the meager return first announced, it got even worse.

Jeff Gorton acquired a conditional 2nd round pick in 2019 and a conditional 3rd round pick in 2020. If the Dallas Stars win two rounds in the playoffs (and Zuccarello plays 50% or more of the games) the 2019 2nd becomes a 2019 1st. If Zuccarello loves Dallas and sticks around this summer, the 2020 3rd round pick becomes a coveted 2020 1st.

The deal itself is remarkably underwhelming at its core. Zuccarello is on pace for a 65-point year (if he played in all 82 games), is a perennial 50+ point player, and is easily one of the most skilled Rangers we’ve seen suit up for the team in recent memory. Add in the fact that Zuccarello is a fan favorite, could be the human embodiment of the Steven McDonald Extra Effort Award, and was the most fun thing a generally not fun organization has ever produced, it’s hard to see him go.

The return has brought out the knives for Gorton, who, it has to be said, put himself up against the wall by waiting until two weeks ago to actually sit down and negotiate with Zuccarello. I’m not saying things would have turned out any differently if the two sides had been talking all year, but if Zuccarello’s ask was pushed down to three years (rather than the five Larry Brooks reported his camp was demanding) we might have seen Gorton lean toward keeping the Norwegian.

Anyway, let’s break down the return:

The draft picks

I’ve seen a lot of “the Rangers got nothing” back for Zuccarello. That is a fallacy created by the love of Zuccarello, and it’s simply not true. Everyone was mentally prepared for Zuccarello to bring back a 2nd round pick and a B-level prospect. There was hope the total package would be more, hope that a team would get into a bidding war once they lost out on other options and upped the stakes — but at the boiled down reality a 2nd and a B-level prospect was the reasonable expectation for a rental here. The Rangers got their 2nd and couldn’t get another prospect so they took a 3rd round pick. With conditions, which I’ll get to in a moment.

Back to the “nothing” aspect: A 2nd round pick isn’t nothing. A 3rd round pick isn’t nothing. The chanced of grabbing a legitimate NHLer drop as each name comes off the board, but there’s plenty of players who are plying their trade (or even dominating it) in the NHL at those respective rounds. Saying “oh the Rangers suck at drafting” isn’t a fair part of this analysis. You want to blame the team’s lack of high-end draft results the past decade or longer? Fine, but that has nothing to do with this part of the return. The Rangers will have three second round picks this year as of this writing (or two, or one, depending on Tampa winning the Cup or Dallas winning two rounds, or both) to help bolster a farm system that still needs elite talent. It’s not rare to find those players in the second round of the draft, and the Rangers have more shots at it today than they did yesterday.

There are a long list of comparables out there but this really isn’t an insane return. If it was anyone other than Zuccarello it would probably cause mumbling and little else.

Jeff Gorton and the “best deal out there”

Gorton can’t just materialize trade partners. Aside from Daren Dreger’s report a day ago that the Rangers could grab a first or a high end prospect, pretty much everyone has been toeing the 2nd and a B-level prospect line. If that. Remember a month ago when the talk was Zuccarello might not even bring back that?

The people who are screaming on Twitter and Facebook that Gorton “got fleeced” seem to forget that he can’t magically create trade partners. At this time of the year (read that again: at this time of the year) trade returns are largely dictated by the market. It’s why I gave Gorton so much credit for the Michael Grabner trade last year — he got his deal in before the market started to plummet. I will get to Gorton’s faults on this trade further down in the article, but the idea that Gorton looked at other offers and said “nope I’m taking this one” is absurd. He took the best deal in front of him, and since talks with multiple teams have been going on for weeks, this was a trade executed after an extensive review of the market. The idea that Gorton could some how “negotiate” a better return from another team is also flawed. Either the action is there or it’s not.

In a traditional environment (say, at the draft or a random mid-season trade) it’s easier to paint with black and white strokes over a deal because there aren’t such drastic timeline factors at play. Once you enter the “selling” portion of the season, you’re victim to the market itself (to an extent). If there was even one other team willing to give Gorton a guaranteed 1st round pick it’s hard to imagine that’s not where Zuccarello would have ended up.

The notion that Gorton “should have waited for more” is equally misguided. The longer these talks drag out the more leverage there is from the buying side. Thanks to the Rangers’ horrific timeline on “negotiating” with Zuccarello and Kevin Hayes, it was known the team intended to move them by February 25th at all costs. If Gorton turned this offer away, and Dallas either made a bid for Mark Stone, or found another rental winger, or decided to do nothing and just moved on, you can bet the deal on Monday would have been worse than this one was. Is it possible another team would have panicked and given up more? Of course, but that’s even riskier than not taking the deal that was on the table right now. It’s Gorton’s job to feel the market and make a move, and he felt this was the best deal he was going to get.

The Ryan Dzingle return (Anthony Duclair, and two 2nd round picks) raised eyebrows, especially since it went down moments before Zuccarello was moved. Keep in mind: Dzingle is four years younger than Zuccarello and is probably looked at as someone who has another gear since he was playing in the cesspool that is Ottawa. It’s also likely Columbus didn’t want to send picks and prospects (if the Rangers even wanted Duclair back) to a division rival. Again: It’s not black and white.

The draft pick conditions

As a reminder:

2019 2nd becomes a 2019 1st if Zuccarello plays in 50% or more of the Stars’ playoff games and they advance to the Western Conference Finals

2020 3rd becomes a 2020 1st if Zuccarello re-signs in Dallas this summer

There’s an enormous gamble on this trade for Gorton, and it’s probably why he went with this deal over others that were offered (Calgary, Winnipeg, and Nashville were all in on Zuccarello as well, although we don’t know who made firm offers). If either of those conditions are hit, the deal becomes a home run. If both conditions are met? It’s a grand slam. If neither are met, well, Gorton will at least have one more shot at bringing Zuccarello back in July.

The West is a crazy conference right now, with Dallas sitting in the first Wild Card spot with 65 points. They’re six points behind the red-hot Blues for the final spot in the Central top-three. Zuccarello will add a lot of talent to that group in Dallas, especially since he’ll finally be surrounded by elite talent. While I wouldn’t expect Dallas to win two playoff series with a gun to my head, it’s not exactly impossible. If the playoffs started right now they’d start on the road in Winnipeg, then have to go through Nashville or St. Louis for the condition to be met. Crazier things have happened, and I’m curious to see what Zuccarello’s skill does to that lineup.

As for him sticking around: This is sort of a double chance for Gorton. If Zuccarello re-signs in Dallas — as likely or as unlikely as you might believe that to be — the Rangers get hat 2020 1st and this is all over and done with. If Zuccarello doesn’t stay in Dallas, then he’s going to hit the free agency market and Gorton can take a final crack at him there to bring him back.

This deal might end up being just a 2nd and a 3rd with Zuccarello wearing another jersey next year. It might end up being a 1st and a 3rd, or a 1st and a 2nd, or a 1st and a 3rd with Zuccarello returning to New York. It wouldn’t be crazy for Dallas to fall in love with Zuccarello the same way New York did and do everything in their power to keep him around. There’s a lot going on to this trade and while it does represent an enormous gamble, there is upside on this as well.

Where Jeff Gorton messed up

It’s really the timing of the whole thing.

The most logical complaints about the deal I saw was “the Rangers should have just kept him if this was the best offer on the table,” which I don’t think is a crazy thought process. The problem is I’m not sure that was possible after how badly Gorton and company messed up their timeline.

In the beginning of the year Zuccarello was so sure he was going to be traded that it impacted his day-to-day life and his play on the ice. The Rangers didn’t negotiate, with him or Hayes, until two weeks ago — so they couldn’t even pretend a trade wasn’t the only outcome. There were numerous reports from the national talking heads that both were going to be dealt all year — and it was a natural assumption — but the local reporting that neither side was talking a few weeks back was telling. Gorton shouldn’t have let things hang out that long, and should have at least been touching base throughout the season. Zuccarello’s five-year ask is not absurd, especially since he’s coming off a team-friendly four-year extension where he assuredly left money on the table, and knows this is likely his last big contract of his career. Gorton balking at the five-year ask is fine, but if these talks were happening in November there would have been time to see if there was a middle ground. Gorton could have always made it clear that he was doing this in addition to reviewing trade possibilities, and perhaps Zuccarello and his camp would have met in the middle to stick around and force Gorton’s hand.

At the very least, it might not have created whatever bad blood seems to exist now. Based on some reading between the lines from the media who are in the room, it appears as though Zuccarello is gone for good. Two months ago I wouldn’t have thought that to be the case — shipping him off and bringing him back in July always worked on paper — but that doesn’t seem as likely now. Maybe that’s for the cameras (Gorton and Zuccarello discussing such things would be collusion) but for now it’s the truth. I don’t think Gorton would have been able to turn around and re-sign him for a penny less than his original ask once we got to this point, and that was something Gorton wasn’t willing to do.

Thank you, Mats

Not much more to say here. I believe Tom will have the sappy story we’ll all need next week. In the meantime, here’s this thread to make you feel better: