Stars’ Season in Jeopardy After Zuccarello Injury

On Sunday, Mats Zuccarello made his Dallas Stars debut against the Chicago Blackhawks and immediately made his mark on the game. He earned the primary assist on a Radek Faksa breakaway goal to open the game’s scoring before notching a goal of his own during the second period.

Then, late in the second frame, he blocked a shot from Chicago’s Connor Murphy and fell to the ice in obvious pain. After the game — a 4-3 victory for the Stars — it was announced that Zuccarello would head back to Dallas for further medical examination. Initial evaluations suggest that he could miss at least a month with an upper-body injury and may even need surgery.

Needless to say, this is a massive blow to a Stars team that just acquired the veteran winger from the New York Rangers on Saturday. To make matters worse, Jamie Benn also left the contest with an upper-body issue and was deemed day-to-day after the game.

Can Dallas Compete Without Zuccarello?

After the end of play Sunday, the Stars have 67 points with a one-point lead and a game in-hand on the Minnesota Wild for the top wild-card spot in the Western Conference. Meanwhile, the Colorado Avalanche sit just two points behind Dallas, but are not currently in a postseason spot. These three teams are likely going to race towards the postseason with Chicago and the Arizona Coyotes not far behind.

By trading for the 5-foot-8 Norwegian, Dallas was clearly ready to make a strong playoff push this season. The team desperately needed offensive help as they’re currently tied for the third-fewest goals scored in the NHL. Zuccarello, a fan favorite during his nine-year tenure with the Rangers, has averaged 19 goals over the last three seasons. He also scored over 50 points in each of those campaigns.

Dallas Stars Mats Zuccarello
Dallas found a perfect fit with Zuccarello before his brutal injury (Jon Durr-USA TODAY Sports)

The 31-year-old winger was also expected to bolster Dallas’ mediocre power play; the team currently scores on roughly 20 percent of its power-play chances, almost identical to the league average. Perhaps most importantly, Zuccarello brought the team plenty of playoff experience. He has 60 postseason games under his belt, including a 13-point performance during the Rangers’ 2014 Playoff run that resulted in a Stanley Cup Final appearance.

Prior to picking up Zuccarello, the team still held onto the conference’s top wild-card spot. Dallas has enough star power, including Benn, Tyler Seguin, and John Klingbergto stay in the playoff race despite the injury to its newest forward. While this team has proven to be good enough to reach the postseason, it’s far from a guarantee after the injury to their prized acquisition.

Will the Stars Stay Active at the Trade Deadline?

Dallas also acquired defenseman Ben Lovejoy from the New Jersey Devils over the weekend. The 35-year-old will add defensive depth to a team that is tied for the third-fewest goals allowed in the league. With a solid group of defensemen, it’s unlikely that Dallas will look to bolster the blue line before Monday’s trade deadline.

However, the Stars may be inclined to search for more forward help with time winding down before the trade deadline passes. They’re running tight against the salary cap, but with Martin Hanzal and Marc Methot on long-term injured reserve (LTIR), the team has a bit of wiggle room.

The trade market is slowly shrinking, but there are a few options still out there. The Florida Panthers have recently made Derrick Brassard available and his experience as a center and winger would give Dallas some much-needed flexibility. The 31-year-old’s offensive game has fallen off in recent seasons but he scored 46 goals and 118 points in a two-season span with the Rangers from 2014-16. It’s clear that Brassard needs a bigger role to be successful on offense and he would likely be a top-six forward with the Stars.

Wayne Simmonds, Philadelphia Flyers
Wayne Simmonds is expected to be traded, but he won’t be enough to replace Zuccarello (Amy Irvin / The Hockey Writers)

Another winger that’s expected to find a new home is Wayne Simmonds of the Philadelphia Flyers. Like Brassard, Simmonds was once a regular 50-point producer but has seen his offensive role diminish recently. Still, the 30-year-old has 16 goals and 27 points this season, as well as the ability to play on both the power play and penalty kill. Of course, Simmonds may be most well-known for his physical edge, racking up nearly 900 hits over the last six seasons. It’s worth noting that both he and Brassard have modified no-trade clauses in their contracts.

The Stars absolutely have the pieces to acquire a player of Simmonds’ or Brassard’s calibers. They have several high-upside forward prospects, including Denis Gurianov — the 12th-overall pick in the 2015 NHL Draft — and Jason Robertson, who’s scored a ridiculous 99 points in 53 OHL contests this season.

They also have Jake Oettinger in the system, a solid goalie prospect who’s posting strong numbers — a 2.49 goals-against average and .926 save percentage — in his third season with Boston University. Dallas also has each of its first-round picks over the next three years despite trading away its second and third-round selections in both 2019 and 2020.

Jason Robertson is one of Dallas’ top prospects and one they shouldn’t trade (Aaron Bell/OHL Images)

Even with some valuable draft capital and prospects, Dallas should be wary about jumping back into the trade market. Zuccarello’s electric debut ended with an absolutely heartbreaking injury. Even with a Dallas victory, the injury may have taken a larger toll on the rest of the roster. Zuccarello was a terrific addition, and with what’s currently on the market, Dallas will be hard-pressed to find a viable replacement without an outrageous price tag.

In two periods with Zuccarello, Dallas appeared to be a significantly stronger team on its way to a postseason berth. Now, there are plenty of question marks surrounding the team, especially where they’ll find scoring outside of Seguin and Benn. The Stars will have to keep their heads above water until Zuccarello returns, which may not be until the postseason if the team finds its way in.