It seemed like a routine play. Mid-way through the first period of game five against the Pittsburgh Penguins, the New York Rangers had the puck in the offensive zone. It came back to team captain Ryan Mcdonagh on the left point, and he sent a slap shot high to the glove side of Pens goalie Marc-Andre Fleury. But the shot never made it to Fleury. Instead, it struck Mats Zuccarello square on the side of the helmet. Zuccarello left the ice almost immediately, and did not return to the game.
The Rangers went on to win that game and the series, but they soon received even worse news–Zuccarello is now out indefinitely with what has been termed termed an upper-body injury, but is likely a concussion. For the foreseeable future, the Blueshirts will be without one of their main offensive catalysts–a player who they count on to play his heart out on every shift. Simply put, he is the type of player who can make things happen whenever he steps on the ice. How do the Rangers replace him?
The Easy Answer
In order to replace Zuccarello, the Rangers first need to have someone to fill the now-empty spot on the roster–and that unenviable task falls on James Sheppard’s shoulders. Sheppard, who was acquired from the San Jose Sharks before the trading deadline, had played 14 games for the Blueshirts in the regular season, but has yet to see playoff action in a Rangers jersey.
As a fourth line player who was called upon to play in a third line role with San Jose, it’s obvious that Sheppard will not be taking Zuccarello’s place on the first line. The most likely scenario has Sheppard joining the fourth line with Tanner Glass and Dominic Moore. This moves rookie Jesper Fast up to the third line alongside fellow rookie Kevin Hayes and Carl Hagelin, replacing Martin St. Louis. MSL, in turn, will likely be the one taking Zuccarello’s place on the first line with Rick Nash and Derick Brassard. The second line of Derek Stepan, Chris Kreider, and J.T. Miller will remain intact.
So the short answer is that Martin St. Louis will be the one who needs to step up to replace Zuccarello. Realistically, though, that’s not going to happen. While St. Louis is still capable of playing a first line role (he is, after all, an All-Star several times over), his game has slowed down in recent years. There’s no doubt he has the heart and hockey sense to replace Zuccarello’s (temporarily at least), but he has never been as much of a physical presence.
I admit, it seems strange to talk of 5’7″ and 5’8″ players being a “physical presence” in today’s NHL, where 6-footers can seem small, but that’s exactly what Zuccarello is. He will not back down from anyone, and regularly hits whoever has the puck–even the likes of Zdeno Chara and Dustin Byfuglien. While St.Louis will be taking his spot on the first line, that missing grit and physicality will need to come from elsewhere.
Who Else Can Step Up?
It’s easy to see that there’s no one player on this team who can realistically be called upon to do everything that Zuccarello does on a nightly basis. Replacing his loss will absolutely be a team effort. With that in mind, here are the players (other than St. Louis, who we already talked about) who will need to put more into their game so the Rangers have an answer for the heavy-hitting style of the Washington Capitals.
Chris Kreider – Kreider’s combination of speed and strength make him a natural candidate to step up for round two. He is already playing strong physically (his 18 hits put him third on the team, behind Tanner Glass and J.T. Miller), and he definitely has the speed to break open a game. He’s still young, though, and has had problems controlling his enthusiasm in the past. If he can find a way to play a physical game without crossing the line, the Rangers will be a much better team. Any less, and he becomes invisible. Any more, and he could find himself talking to the Department of Player Safety. Either way hurts this team that much more while Zuccarello is out.
Jesper Fast – The aptly-named Fast is a bit of a wild card in this equation. He will definitely be called upon to play a larger role, moving from the fourth line to the third. His combination of speed and defensive responsibility (he also mans the Rangers’ PK unit) may just turn the third line into a true shutdown threat. Having him paired with Carl Hagelin makes this line the Rangers’ fastest. If the axiom holds true, and the Caps can’t hit what they can’t catch, the new, “Fast”-er third line could be a true difference-maker.
James Sheppard – While Sheppard will be seeing limited minutes playing on the fourth line, he will still be responsible for keeping the Capitals in check, as coach Alain Vigneault will likely rely on all four lines (at least early in the series). In round one, the Rangers’ fourth line saw considerable time, but that was with Jesper Fast. This line is now considerably slower, and Sheppard will be called upon to grind out some very hard shifts. If Sheppard can keep this line strong, it will allow the top-nine of the Rangers to rest a bit more–which may be necessary given the Caps’ physical play. However, if Vigneault has to shorten the bench, the top three lines could be completely drained by a long series.
Summing it Up
No one player can replace what Mats Zuccarello brings to the Rangers’ lineup. And even beyond what we’ve discussed here, his heart will be sorely missed. It’s a large hole, but this Rangers team has shown remarkable resiliency. They can battle through and win–but their second-round hill just got quite a bit steeper.
Kevin has been covering the Florida Panthers and New York Rangers for The Hockey Writers since the 2013-14 season. Before that, he has written about, played, and coached hockey at all levels. He grew up a Rangers fan in the Southern Tier of New York State, but now lives in the Atlanta area with his wife and two sons. You can reach him on Twitter as @kmizTHW , or via email (firstname.lastname@example.org).