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In Praise of Mats Zuccarello

 

Written by Pac Pobric  •  Illustrated by Keenan Wells

Small but fierce. That’s what he was, Mats Zuccarello, for the nine years he played for the New York Rangers. And charismatic, too. Here was a forward who went undrafted into the National Hockey League, made an impression playing in Norway and Sweden, and got a call from Rangers general manager Glen Sather in 2010 asking if he wanted to try out for a spot in New York. That year, he got a role with the Rangers’ affiliate in Hartford and was an absolute firecracker, scoring 29 points in 36 games. It was a hell of a feat for a guy from Oslo who’s 5’7” and 180 pounds soaking wet.

That December, the “Norwegian Hobbit Wizard” got a call from the big boys at Madison Square Garden. Star forward Marian Gaborik was out with an injury and Zuccarello had a shot at The Show. “I want to try to get him in some offensive situations,” Rangers head coach John Tortorella said, which is exactly what he did. In Zuccarello’s first NHL game, after 65 minutes of play against the Tampa Bay Lightning, with the game heading into a shootout, Tortorella put Zucc down as the third shooter, which paid off as soon as the zippy forward popped a backhand shot past Lightning goalie Dan Ellis. It wasn’t enough for a win (New York lost after 11 shootout rounds), but it was still all smiles for Zuccarello in the locker room afterwards. “It was probably the greatest night of my life, to play in my first game here,” he said.

Gaborik got healthy quick and Zuccarello went back down to the American Hockey League, where he spent the better part of the next two years. But his apprenticeship ended in 2013 when he found a regular spot in New York. In each of the next five seasons, he never played fewer than 77 games, in which he scored 281 points and earned a lot of time on the ice: 19 minutes and 53 second on average in his final full season with the team. For four years, three of them consecutive, he was the Rangers’ leading scorer.

Zuccarello liked New York and New York liked him. He forged close bonds with players like Carl Hagelin, who drove him to the rink every day, and Henrik Lundqvist, who vacationed with him in Turks and Caicos. Mika Zibanejad took Zuccarello to Knicks games, and the fans got in on it too. At the Garden, he got his own chant—“Zuuuuuuucc!”—which made him blush almost every time.

It’s a chant we won’t hear again. On February 23, Zuccarello was traded to the Dallas Stars for picks in the 2019 and 2020 drafts. The move, which fits into Rangers general manager Jeff Gorton’s plans to stockpile young players, was never in doubt. Since the beginning of the season, it was clear that although Zuccarello wanted to stay in New York, Gorton was in a selling mood. Zuccarello, in the final year of his contract, was a player for whom Gorton could get something worthwhile for his rebuilding team.

He wasn’t the only player to go. Kevin Hayes, who spent the past five years in New York and always underperformed ever-so-slightly, is now playing for Winnipeg as the team gears up for a Stanley Cup run. Adam McQuaid, who joined the Rangers for only 36 games this season, is now with Columbus, a top-heavy team that, regardless of all its weapons, may still miss the playoffs.

There’s a conversation to be had about the remuneration. We got good returns on the trades of Hayes and McQuaid, but is Zuccarello—a player who’s scored 352 points in 509 NHL games, who currently plays nearly 18 minutes a night on top lines, who has that rare combination of elite skill and a workmanlike attitude (a not-very-common trait in today’s NHL)—really only worth two draft picks? In his first game with Dallas, as if to prove the point, he scored a goal and an assist, and to many of us, it looks like Gorton left something on the table. But that’s a debate for a later day. What matters now, as the Rangers careen to the end of their lumpy season having lost the last six games in a row, is the gaping wound to team morale.

Zuccarello was a force the Rangers and the city could rally behind, a spark-plug type player who could light a fuse and make everyone around him better. For most of his time as a Blueshirt, his Corsi For rating has been above 50 percent, which means that when he’s been on the ice, his team has the puck more often than not. (His Fenwick For rating, a similar way of tracking puck possession, is roughly the same.) But most of what we’re talking about are intangibles, those strange alchemical reactions that make the difference between winning and losing.

Part of what made Zuccarello so admirable was his resolve. In 2015, he suffered a freakish head contusion after being hit in the head with a slapshot by teammate Ryan McDonagh during a playoff game. He left the ice immediately, but in the locker room, found he was unable to speak—a horror that lasted four full days. When teammates Carl Hagelin and Derick Brassard visited him in the hospital, they were shocked to learn that he was able to communicate only intermittently. "You could see that he knew what was going on, so he got frustrated, and then Brass broke down and then I broke down because of the whole mix of everything," Hagelin said. "It was an emotional day." Half a year later, Zuccarello was playing again.

There is progress you can chart and make graphs from—points scored, assists made, Corsi For or Against—and then there’s incalculable magic. To come back from an injury like Zuccarello’s falls into the latter category. Which is why players like Zibanejad and Lunqvist will miss him so much. Asked, after Zuccarello’s trade, how he was feeling about the whole thing, Lundqvist slipped into tears. “It’s tough… a friend,” he eked out, and then, as he choked up: “I can’t.”

There’s a picture of Mats Zuccarello that, once you’ve seen it, you’re not likely to forget. It was taken in 2013 at a playoff game at Madison Square Garden where the Rangers were facing the Boston Bruins. Up against the glass, battling for a puck, there’s Zucc, all 5’7” of him, pushing Bruins defenseman Zdeno Chara—at 6’9”, the tallest person ever to play in the NHL—into the corner. That’s grit. That’s determination. And that’s what we’ll miss.

 
Pac Pobric