With the Dallas Stars’ first-round fate far from decided, Mats Zuccarello still hasn’t necessarily paid off as a trade-deadline acquisition. All anyone can say is it at least looks like a perfect fit for both parties. Looks can be deceiving, though.
Stars Get Zuccarello
However long the unrestricted-free-agent Zuccarello remains in the fold depends on a few factors. For example, how many playoff rounds the Stars stay alive and if the two sides are able to come to an agreement this summer.
Of course, general manager Jim Nill knew the risks when he got Zuccarello from the New York Rangers. After all, Nill did give up conditional second-round and third-round picks. The fact that the nature of the picks depends on those aforementioned factors is further proof, with the 2019 second-round pick set to become a first if the Stars make it to the third round this spring. The 2020 third-round pick becomes another first-rounder if the Stars manage to sign the Norwegian forward.
To summarize, Zuccarello was hypothetically worth two first-round picks in Nill’s mind. That was even before he started to prove himself offensively, with a total six points in the two regular-season and four playoff games he’s played with the Stars so far.
So, to Nill, Zuccarello must really be worth it now, as he’s effectively proven himself, finally having gotten the chance after breaking his arm in his Stars debut. Considering how, prior to this season, the 31-year-old had played 396 of a possible 410 regular-season games since 2013-14, his durability isn’t really an issue. His longevity should be though.
Zuccarello vs. Spezza
Consider how Zuccarello would theoretically be replacing Jason Spezza in the top six. It’s no secret Spezza is likely on his way out, as he’s served as a regular healthy scratch down the stretch and is a projected UFA too. No argument here, seeing as Spezza’s tenure as a Star has been marred by diminishing returns from a production standpoint.
Spezza admittedly had a decent first season with the Stars, after he had been acquired from the Ottawa Senators and was still on his last deal. On his way to scoring 62 points and making $7 million on average, Spezza soon re-upped with the Stars. His current deal, which he signed in November of that first season here, gave him an average of $7.5 million instead.
The raise was a curious decision, seeing as, over the course of that $7 million-per deal, Spezza had failed to replicate his elite production from the one before. From 2006-07 to 2007-08, playing with Dany Heatley and Daniel Alfredsson, Spezza tallied 179 points in 143 games (1.25 points per game).
During the seven-year stretch that followed he only managed more than a point-per-game pace in a single season, scoring 342 points in in 364 games (0.94) overall. Spezza’s production has fallen off a cliff since. Over the course of his current, four-year, $30 million deal, he’s managed just 166 points in 297 games (0.56).
During the aforementioned highly productive two-season stretch from 2006-08, Spezza had been on a two-year deal that paid him $4.5 million on average. That’s only really relevant because that’s exactly what Zuccarello is making now. Coincidentally, Spezza signed his current deal when he was the same age Zuccarello is now, too (31).
Can Stars Even Afford Zuccarello?
Hopefully, that’s where the parallels end. No team can really afford to ink a player to deal that pays him as much for similar production, especially not when simply securing that signature also leads to losing a first-round pick.
Obviously, Zuccarello and Spezza are two different players. There are no guarantees Zuccarello will age nearly as badly. The problem is, as great as Zuccarello has been for the Stars, it can’t last based on how he has yet to even reach the 70-point plateau in a single season. Sixty points seems to be his ceiling.
Simply put, at his peak, Spezza was simply more valuable with superior game-breaking, playmaking capabilities relative to Zuccarello, and by a huge margin. So, while the temptation must be there for Nill to secure Zuccarello’s services for a while longer, he must exercise a great deal of caution. If he breaks the bank to keep Zuccarello, the Stars could be right where they are now sooner rather than later, healthy-scratching one of their highest-paid players for no other reason than an inability to learn from past mistakes.
Obviously, if the Stars can sign Zuccarello for the right amount and term, so be it. Those are the two conditions that truly matter, because a bird in the hand is worth two in the bush and there’s no telling if the first-round pick will pan out. You already know Zuccarello will to a certain degree.
However, because of that success, Zuccarello could be pricing himself out of any semblance of a reasonable deal. In that case, he could realistically be poised to test free agency, get the huge payday he’s worked for up to now, and most likely become some other team’s problem by the end of that next contract he’ll inevitably sign.
It’s an outcome that’s as close to being in the written in the stars as possible, because Nill has first-hand experience seeing it all play out before. If the Stars make it out of the second round this postseason though, that would be new to him and arguably worth that first, first-round pick the Stars would be giving up in the process.
So, if it hasn’t already, the trade can turn into a massive success. It’s what comes this summer that should be the main concern… right after their opponents in the first round right now, the Nashville Predators, of course.
After 10 years of writing hockey, Ryan decided it was as good a time as any to actually join The Hockey Writers for the 2014-15 season. Having appeared as a guest on such programs as CBC Radio One’s Daybreak, Ryan has also written for the Montreal Gazette and Bleacher Report and worked for the NHL itself and his hometown Montreal Canadiens. He currently writes about all things Habs for THW, with it being a career highlight for him to have covered the 2021 Stanley Cup Final as a credentialed member of the press.