The New York Rangers missed the playoffs last season for the first time since the 2009-10 campaign, and they currently reside in the middle (21-20-7, 49 points) of the crowded Eastern Conference standings. The Rangers are nine points away from a wild card playoff berth, which makes it perfect timing for them to move Mats Zuccarello because there will be plenty of suitors to acquire a player of his ability as we near the trade deadline.
The Rangers may have hit the wall in the schedule as they’re desperately trying to stay afloat in the playoff chase. Despite being more competitive on the ice, this newfound success will not hinder Rangers general manager Jeff Gorton from searching for ways to upgrade the roster prior to the Feb. 25 trade deadline.
It’s all about remaining committed to the rebuilding plan by collecting high draft picks or top prospects in exchange for proven NHL talent like Zuccarello when the market dictates such a move. The Rangers’ front office is bracing for the backlash that comes with trading away a fan-favorite, but that is expected as part of the New York sports scene.
Zuccarello is a Leader on and off the Ice
No question that Zuccarello is one of the more popular players to wear a Rangers sweater in recent times. The Madison Square Garden crowd loves screaming “Zuuuc” whenever he moves the puck into the offensive zone. This love affair continues with those high in the Rangers organization as they rave about Zuccarello’s leadership skills as much as his offensive proficiency.
Who is a better option on the trade market than Zuccarello? He is considered one of the better two-way forwards in the NHL. He has averaged over 50 points the last three seasons as he is a dangerous sniper near the net and has developed into a solid back-checker in the defensive zone.
All teams have leaders, and Zuccarello has been one of the leading voices in the Rangers locker room since his arrival in New York nine seasons ago. His mentoring of the youngsters (Brett Howden, Filip Chytil and Lias Andersson) has helped accelerate their growth this season, but his presence in the lineup has made life difficult for the coaching staff to find quality ice time for this young trio.
Zuccarello’s recent absence from the lineup due to a lingering groin injury has shown team management they can compete without him. Thus, it’s inevitable he will be traded prior to the deadline.
Both Sides Are “Winners” in Zuccarello Trade
The root of the Rangers’ problems is not having a well-rounded roster, but that can be rectified in due time. They have trade chips like Kevin Hayes and Zuccarello, as the loss of either player will not alter the team’s plans moving forward. Zuccarello is an unrestricted free agent at season’s end. The winger has scored eight goals and 24 points in 35 games as his production (one goal and six points in the last three games) took off prior to the extended All-Star break.
The Rangers are eyeing to make a move, but for right now, it’s a “wait and see” approach to the trade market. You can expect the marketplace to become more active as the deadline approaches. Gorton chose to travel this road last spring as the Rangers bid adieu to Rick Nash, Michael Grabner, Ryan McDonagh and J.T. Miller in exchange for promising young prospects. His decision may come down to accepting an offer for Zuccarello that advances the team’s rebuild on the path towards contending for a Stanley Cup playoff berth in a season or two.
A trade of this nature make sense for both sides, especially if the Rangers can maximize the return from a frenzied market. It’s the cycle of life in the NHL as the Rangers are able to acquire talent while Zuccarello is afforded another opportunity to compete for a Stanley Cup title. His departure opens ice time for younger players trying establish themselves in the NHL.
It’s hard to harvest talent and maintain a competitive roster when an organization is continually drafting late or not at all in the first round of the NHL Entry Draft. Too often during their lengthy Stanley Cup playoff runs, the Rangers traded away multiple first-round draft picks to fortify the roster. Plus, it is hard to keep your core players together while managing the salary cap at the same time. Some difficult financial decisions have to be made or you limit the amount of options available to improve the roster.
The fans want Zuccarello to be a Ranger for life, but the odds are high the organization won’t offer a contract extension to him. Thus, his time in New York is coming to an end. Rumors of Zuccarello’s departure should take center stage as we head towards the trade deadline. Let’s see what happens.
Thomas Conroy covers the Vegas Golden Knights for The Hockey Writers Network He has been writing about sports since 2007, first as a contributor for Bleacher Report and Football Nation. Recently, Conroy was a co-editor for the Bolts Beat website on Fansided. To read more his work, please him on Twitter @tsconroy