Mats Zuccarello has been one of the New York Rangers’ top forwards in recent years, but so far this season he’s been a bit less noticeable. Whenever the small Norwegian forward touches the puck in Madison Square Garden, “Zuuuuccc” can be heard cascading down from the crowd, and for a good reason. Zuccarello has been a spark plug for the Rangers who plays with tremendous heart and eye-popping skill. Plus, he’s been with the club through some intense playoff battles.
Through 27 games this season Zuccarello sits at a respectable 17 points, but the forward has been less of a factor than he has been in previous years. This past contest against the New York Islanders may have been Zuccarello’s best game of the season, which is a good sign, but for people familiar with the Rangers it must be strange to see Zuccarello not consistently generating offense. This could be a result of less-aggressive play, or perhaps just slipping execution.
One of the best details about Zuccarello has been that he can be a bit of a pest, and that sort of snarl never diminished even if the opponent was massive. For fans, how can anyone not get a kick out of seeing such a small guy mix it up with giant defenders? While it does make for entertaining hockey, it also seemed to feed into the forward’s overall game. Zuccarello would play hard in the corners and bother his opponents in front of the net and despite not being a big guy he’d always make his presence known.
One clip that shows what I’m talking about comes from a few years ago when Chris Neil throws a big hit on Marc Staal. After the check, you’ll see Benoit Pouliot come in and hit Neil, followed by Zuccarello giving him an extra shot. After that, the small Ranger ends up in the middle of another confrontation altogether.
That extra bit of bite is what seems to be missing from his game. He still backs up teammates, but it looks to be more out of necessity than from pure adrenaline. If you look at his game as a whole, he’s not playing poorly, he still skates hard and does more than he needs to on defense, but his willingness to agitate opponents seems to have dwindled.
At this point, Zuccarello is only on pace for a bit over 50 points, which is a noticeable drop off from the 61 points he had last season. The winger spends more time on the ice than any other Ranger forward on a game-to-game basis, but just can’t seem to reach that next gear.
With Zuccarello, the talent starts with his passing. His ability to find players in the offensive zone is right up there with anyone in the league, but thus far, he seems to have cut back on the ultra-nifty pass work, in what looks to be a more straightforward brand of hockey as he is shooting the puck more.
Zuccarello appeared to be a bit hurt by the team moving on from his good friend and former teammate Derick Brassard this offseason. Now it isn’t like Zuccarello’s left on a team of strangers, but the relationship between those two was undeniable; in their time together they were usually a strong duo on the ice together, and they also seemed to have a way of cracking each other up during games. Could his departure have something to to with this sag in Zuccarello’s game? Perhaps, but it’s more likely that the sag has to do with the Norwegian forward shooting closer to his career percentage of 11.1 percent, rather than the 15.7 percent he shot last season. Whatever the case New York will need him to collect himself and find the bite in his game now that the team is dealing with several injuries.