Brian Abate The Hockey Writers
Rangers Miss Zuccarello’s Leadership and Grit
Last season, the New York Rangers traded Mats Zuccarello to the Dallas Stars at the trade deadline. He then signed a five-year, $30 million contract with the Minnesota Wild over the offseason.
The trade made sense because the Rangers were rebuilding last season and Zuccarello was a veteran in the final year of his contract. The Blueshirts got a second and third-round pick for him, allowing them to get younger players. While the trade helped them rebuild, the team and its fans still miss everything Zuccarello brought to the table.
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The Rangers do have leaders and gritty players on the team this season. This isn’t a knock on them or the way they play. This is simply about missing Zuccarello because what he brought to the team is irreplaceable.
In New York, Zuccarello was an underdog who thrived under pressure in the world’s most famous arena. He never backed down from another player and played each shift as if it were his last one. He was a unique, versatile, beloved Ranger.
Zuccarello Had a Difficult Road to the NHL
Zuccarello is listed (generously) at 5-foot-8. He hails from Norway, a country that hasn’t produced many NHL players, and began his professional career there when he was 18 years old. He then played for MODO Hockey Ornskoldsvik in the Swedish Elite League and was named MVP in the 2009-10 season. He also played well in the Winter Olympic Games in 2010, finishing with a goal and two assists in four games, while at the same time showing he wasn’t afraid to play a physical style.
His strong play earned him a contract with the Rangers in the 2010 offseason but he began 2010-11 in the AHL with the Connecticut Whale. He played well enough to earn a shot with New York and scored his first NHL goal in overtime to beat the Carolina Hurricanes.
Still, he struggled to get playing time and bounced back and forth between the AHL and NHL. He also briefly played in the KHL during the lockout in 2012-13 but returned to the Rangers later in the season. In his first three seasons, Zuccarello played in just 67 games with the Blueshirts, scoring 11 goals and adding 23 assists. He never changed his style of play and earned playing time in the playoffs in the 2012-13 season. He scored a goal in Game 7 in the first round against the Washington Capitals in a 5-0 victory. His strong play in the postseason gave him momentum heading into the offseason.
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That offseason, New York fired head coach John Tortorella and replaced him with Alain Vigneault. Zuccarello was given an opportunity for more steady playing time and took advantage of it. He had the best season of his career and formed chemistry with linemates Derick Brassard and Benoit Pouliot. The line became one of the team’s best, and Zuccarello finished the season with 19 goals and 40 assists in 77 games.
Zuccarello Stepped up in the Postseason
Zuccarello finished with a goal and six assists in the playoffs in 2013 despite not playing with the team’s top players. He was even better the following postseason.
Zuccarello’s line was a difference-maker for the Rangers in the playoffs in 2014 and he led the way. He was noticeable on every shift, whether it was making a great pass, throwing a check, blocking a shot or getting in the face of an opposing player.
In Game 7 against the Philadelphia Flyers in the first round of the 2013 postseason, the Blueshirts were desperate for offense with Rick Nash failing to produce and Chris Kreider out injured. Zuccarello made a spinning no-look, cross-ice pass to set up Daniel Carcillo for the first goal of the game. New York never gave up the lead and won 2-1.
He consistently chipped in throughout the postseason and helped the Blueshirts overcome a 3-1 series deficit against the Pittsburgh Penguins in the second round. He had three assists in a 5-1 victory in Game 5. He also helped lead the Rangers to a 7-2 Game 1 victory at the Montreal Canadiens in Game 1 of the Eastern Conference Final with a goal and an assist in the game. Zuccarello was also one of the most noticeable players in the Stanley Cup Final that season but it wasn’t enough to beat the Los Angeles Kings.
Zuccarello finished with five goals, eight assists and was plus-seven in 25 postseason games. He also had an impressive 28 blocks and 54 hits.
In 60 playoff games with the Rangers, he had 11 goals and 20 assists but the numbers don’t do justice to how well he played. He was an essential part of their run to the Cup Final and never struggled under the pressure of the postseason. He also played well for the Stars last postseason, finishing with four goals and seven assists in 13 games even though he had just returned from a broken arm.
Zuccarello Overcame Adversity and Didn’t Allow It to Change the Way He Plays
Zuccarello suffered a serious injury when he was hit in the head by a Ryan McDonagh slapshot in a playoff game against the Penguins in 2015. He was forced to leave the game and ended up missing the rest of the postseason.
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For a long time, there were no updates on his condition other than that he had suffered an upper-body injury. However, after the Rangers were eliminated from playoff contention it was reported that he had suffered a fractured skull and brain contusion. He also temporarily lost the ability to speak and had to take speech therapy in the offseason. Despite his serious injury, Zuccarello was ready to play by the start of the 2015-16 season.
He showed no fear and didn’t alter his game because of the injury. In fact, he finished the season with 69 blocked shots, the most in his career. He also finished with a career-high 26 goals and a career-high 61 points. He was still aggressive and was never afraid to go to the front of the net or engage in physical battles. He was a key member of the team’s penalty kill and power play.
Missing Zuccarello’s Leadership
Zuccarello led by example and played with maximum effort every time he took the ice. He was usually the smallest player on the ice but he was fearless and never backed down from bigger opponents. There is also something to be said about a player that led his team in points multiple seasons also playing such a gritty, physical style. He was respected by all teammates and someone that younger players could learn from.
Zuccarello was a fan favorite because of his style of play. He had a lot of the same traits as former Rangers’ captain, Ryan Callahan. He was a player with the skill to produce offensively, the grit to defend well, and the fearlessness necessary to stick up for teammates. Whether he was the team’s leading scorer or an undrafted player just trying to stay in the NHL, he never changed his style of play and he did it for nine seasons in New York. He was the team’s recipient of the Steven McDonald Extra Effort Award three times.
There are some players on this season’s team that play with the same passion and intensity night in and night out that Zuccarello demonstrated. Jacob Trouba and Ryan Lindgren both play physically and I’ve yet to see either player back down from an opponent. In addition to their grit, they have also both shown that they are skilled and effective players. They both lead by example and have helped fill the void left when Zuccarello was traded. However, they will have to continue to play this way consistently and prove they can do it for multiple seasons in order to match Zuccarello’s performance with New York.
The truth is, Zuccarello cannot be replaced. There will never be another player quite like him on the Rangers. His skill helped him go from an undrafted free agent to become one of the team’s best players but his heart and grit are what I will always remember most.
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