Despite some turbulence in the negotiations and a moderate trade scare, the Rangers formally agreed to a contract extension with Mats Zuccarello prior to the NHL’s trading deadline on Monday. The four-year deal with $18 million is certainly a big commitment compared to the bare bones, one-year deals Zuccarello was used to getting from the Rangers every summer. And while almost everybody is happy Zuccarello is back, there’s logic to concern over handing a player with only one-and-a-half proven NHL seasons such a contract.
Nonetheless, With the uncertainty regarding the multiple decisions made by Rangers’ management the last 48 hours, all evidence points towards this one in particularly being an unequivocally great one.
The cliché of the “hometown discount” is often overused and not very meaningful. We often see hometown discounts come in the form of a player not pushing for literally every possible penny, regardless of location. I think back to last year’s stand-off between the Rangers and Ryan Callahan, with Callahan insisting on $6.5M-$6.75M, but offering a “discount” of $6.25M for the next 6 years. I’m sure he could have found a desperate team to give him that term if he really wanted to in the summer, but pragmatically speaking it wasn’t much of a discount. He was pushing his limit to begin with, and he and his agent seemed to realize that after signing for a much more honest deal in Tampa Bay.
Zuccarello, however, actually offered to take a true hometown discount. He wasn’t exactly out of line to ask for $5.5M in the first place, and the financially sound move would have probably been to call Sather’s trade bluff and truly push him to at least hit the $5M mark at a big length.
And while $4.5M for the next four years will set Zuccarello up for life, he probably could have milked a bit more from the Rangers, and certainly gotten a significantly more luxurious deal elsewhere without much effort. Not only did he sacrifice what is probably a full million dollars annually (and that’s before getting into New York’s income tax situation), but the term is ideal for the Rangers as well; Zuccarello, who will be freshly 28 when the new contract starts next season, will be signed through age 31. Essentially, the Rangers have Zuccarello not only at a discounted price, but without any “dead” years tacked on at the end; he’s signed solely through what will be his prime years of hockey. Getting a player at a noticeable yearly discount without having to sacrifice in length is a rarity. The New York Post’s Larry Brooks reported late last night that Zuccarello instructed his agents to work for the “best possible deal with the Rangers,” implying that Zuccarello was going to accept whatever NYR was offering.
There’s a difference between wanting to stay and doing everything in your power to ensure that happens. Zuccarello did the latter. You have to respect that kind of commitment to the organization.
How Does He Stack Up?
Of course, a “discount” is meaningless if a player isn’t even worth the contract in the first place. Wade Redden and Chris Drury took less money than other teams were offering in order to sign with the Rangers; I don’t think that makes many people feel better about those deals.
It’s somewhat hard to believe, given how he is a fan favorite, but I think Zuccarello might actually be an underrated commodity. Here’s a look at how Zuccarello stacks up against other wingers on unrestricted free agent contracts in the $4.25M-$4.75M range.
A layman’s guide to this chart: All numbers are at even strength. Being more to the right means a higher goals for/goals against ratio while on the ice. Being higher up on the y-axis means generating more points/60 minutes. The more blue, the more positive in Corsi Rel (how good a player’s possession numbers are compared to the rest of his team).
As you can see, Zuccarello is in the high-end of the spectrum everywhere. The Rangers score a lot of goals with him on the ice, and his points/60 minutes indicates that he’s accountable for an awful lot of them. And he’s an elite possession player. When it comes to wingers in a similar salary range, only Andrew Ladd and maybe Scott Hartnell are even close. Hartnell sacrificed money for a huge term with Philadelphia, while Ladd’s contract is an outright steal and he’ll be paid handsomely when he’s set to become as free agent in 2017.
In essence, Zuccarello’s completely outplaying what will be his pay bracket under this contract. Here he is compared to wingers who are locked up $5M-$6M annually as free agents. He fits in much more with this crowd, and even then still holds up very strongly.
And should you think that this is merely a fluke occurrence this season, here is the same chart dating back to October of 2013.
Zuccarello is not a bonafide star, but he’s certainly in that tier right below alongside the likes of Patrick Sharp and Blake Wheeler. And certainly well ahead of wingers in the $4.5M range like Burrows, Eriksson, Erat, and Gionta.
The concept of intangibles has been completely corrupted in midst of the analytics debate. From an analytics perspective, everyone agrees that “intangibles” do matter, but that they simply aren’t a good basis for employing otherwise bad players; or in cases like Chris Drury and David Clarkson, not a good basis for spending large sums of money for otherwise undeserving hockey talents.
Zuccarello is a hell of a hockey player and on that basis alone has justified the new contract. Thus, one can delve into the more abstract things he brings to the table with a clean conscience. In many ways, Zuccarello is the biggest spark plug the Rangers have had since Sean Avery. He makes things happen every shift. He has zero fear of engaging in physical battles and getting in the ear of the opposition. He energizes the crowd to the point that you can hear “ZUUUUUUCC” chants during away games in random places like Nashville and Arizona. It’s clear that he’s a big hit in the locker room, and while he’s not a leader in the traditional way, the bench very obviously rallies around him. He’s a low-maintenance personality who never creates problems for the coaching staff. He wants to be in New York more than anything and, as mentioned earlier, sacrificed a lot of money to make that happen. There’s not much of an injury history to be concerned about, and he showed last Spring that the playoffs and even Stanley Cup Final don’t intimidate him.
I’ll take a dull, productive player every time over a flamboyant, energetic detriment. But in the case of Mats Zuccarello you’re getting the best of both worlds. He’s, at worst, a high-end second-line winger who is just now entering his prime. His production alone makes the contract worth it. But then you get into the other aspects – the intangibles, the fact that there’s no commitment beyond his early 30s – and the contract starts to look like a steal. Even with Zuccarello finally getting his big payday, he still ended up sacrificing a lot for the sake of making things work. It’s a huge add for the Rangers as they try to make all the pieces of the puzzle fit under a tight salary cap. There are never guarantees, but everything about Mats Zuccarello as a hockey player and a person suggests this will most likely be a massive coup for the Rangers.