What is going on with Mats Zuccarello?

A short analysis of the diminutive winger's struggling start to the season. The lack of scoring is just the tip of the iceberg.

The New York Rangers have had a tough start to the 2013-14 season and Mats Zuccarello has not been an exception, unlike Anton Strålman. But to me, the way he has struggled surprised me a great deal.

The obvious criticism is that as an offensive minded forward he has been held pointless throughout the first seven games of the season. Now this isn't a very good indication, but it doesn't necessarily mean that he has been bad. Goals are rare events and seven games is a small sample, he could be due for positive regression.

But with Zuccarello it hasn't just been points, his on-ice stats have been awful as well. He is last among the regular Rangers forwards in FF% (ratio of unblocked shot attempts for/against) and this is both remarkable and worrying at the same time since Zuccarello has been a fantastic possession player throughout his, albeit spotty, NHL career. Let's take a look at his FD20 vs Exp, a measure that accounts for quality of teammates as well as competition, over his career and see how he compares. FD20 vs Exp measures how his Fenwick differential per 20 minutes differs from the expected differential based on the quality of his teammates and his competition.

Mats Zuccarello


FD20 vs Exp

Team Rank

League Rank




1 of 28

8 of 783




1 of 25

16 of 782




1 of 25

17 of 738




1 of 37

10 of 1035




12 of 16

274 of 497

His FD20 vs Exp has been the best on the team in each of his seasons and even though the sample is small I think it paints a pretty conclusive picture up until this season as he has been playing on pretty different teams with different linemates yet put up very consistent numbers. If we adjust the minimum minutes to 400+ over the past three seasons he is 5th behind P. Bergeron, D. Shore, B. Gallagher, and J. Williams. But this season, small sample notwithstanding, his numbers are well below what could be expected from him. When adjusting for situation the picture isn't as grim as the raw numbers since he clawed his way past Stepan to second worst among forwards, another player having a surprisingly bad start to the season, but I expected a lot more from a player I was certain had the ability to drive possession regardless of linemates.

So what could be the usage for this drop in performance? The drop-off seems too big to be caused by the natural variance in a player's performance. Let's take a look at his situational usage:

Mats Zuccarello

OZ/DZ Start Ratio

Exp FD20
















His deployments have been a lot more biased to the defensive zone than previously. Even though the FD20 vs Exp numbers are adjusted for zone starts, it seems like there may be residual effects from the defensive bias. The scarcity of offensive starts due to the Rangers' poor possession play seems to have hurt him, the bulk of these have gone to Richards, Stepan, Brassard, and Callahan leaving little for the rest of the team. The Rangers have five regular forwards with an OZ/DZ Start Ratio below 40%. AV may have been trying to utilize his ability to get the puck up the ice, which historically has been good, but if that is the case it hasn't seemed to work so far. In fact he has ended more shifts in his own end than he has started there. His usage has also been more difficult in absolute terms if we look at his Exp FD20, but he has actually been getting pretty decent linemates relative to his team where he places 2nd among forwards after Stepan. The higher difficulty is likely a consequence of the team's poor start to the season and not a reduction in the quality of his linemates.

To me this looks like a struggling player on a struggling team that is perhaps slightly misused at the moment. But on the other hand, he hasn't earned a bigger offensive role on the ice. The onus is on him to do the best of this situation and play his way out of it, as he has done in the past.

Zuccarello was to me one of the key factors to the Rangers success this season. With Hagelin out to start the year I was hoping that Zuccarello could step up into his role, and even with the return of Hagelin having two so adept possession forwards to place into the lineup is a pretty unique thing in this league. But unfortunately he has not been able to drive possession as expected and has instead underperformed massively compared to my expectations. I'm not ready to give up on him yet, seven games is still a small sample, but he needs to turn it around, for the Rangers' sake and his own. He has shown the ability to be a significant difference maker in this league in the past.

Source statistics from stats.hockeyanalysis.com and behindthenet.ca