The NHL Trade Deadline is Monday, Feb. 25, and the New York Rangers are preparing to move on to the next portion of their rebuild. This means more familiar faces the Blueshirts will have to part with — and longtime forward Mats Zuccarello was the latest piece to be moved. The Rangers traded Zuccarello to the Dallas Stars on the evening of Feb. 23 in exchange for conditional second and third-round picks.
Zuccarello came to the Rangers prior to the 2010-11 season, after spending six seasons in his native Norway and Sweden. He split time between the Connecticut Whale (the Rangers’ AHL team at the time) and the Rangers in the first two seasons. Between his first call-up in late Dec. 2010 and the end of the 2012 season, Zuccarello played 52 games and scored 26 points, 18 of those coming off assists.
Following a brief stint with the KHL’s Metallurg Magnitogorsk due to the 2012-13 lockout, Zuccarello returned to New York in March 2013, where he remained an integral part of the franchise, playing in nearly every game since that time. The 2013-14 season saw Zuccarello lead the team in points and assists (tied with Derek Stepan) and be a big contributor in the team winning the Prince of Wales Trophy, as well as the Presidents’ Trophy the following season.
In 509 regular-season games played so far, Zucc has produced 239 assists and 113 goals. More importantly, his attitude, heart and ability to be a real nuisance to opposing skaters won over the hearts of Rangers fans everywhere. With that in mind, here are a few of Zucc’s most memorable times with the team.
Zuccarello’s Quick Start, First NHL Points
Zuccarello already had a part of history from the start of his big-league hockey career, becoming the eighth Norwegian player in NHL history — the second undrafted — when he made his debut on Dec. 23, 2010. It looked like Zuccarello wanted to show what he could provide right off the bat. While the Rangers lost in a shootout, and Zuccarello registered just two shots in about 17 minutes, he provided some help by scoring during the shootout.
In his next game, he scored his first career point in the NHL when he assisted on a Stepan goal in a win over the New York Islanders. This tied him with Anders Myrvold for the Norwegian player record for fewest games needed for a first point, but he wasn’t done there. Nine games later, Zuccarello scored his first career goal in style, getting one past Cam Ward in overtime to give New York a win over the Carolina Hurricanes at home.
Zucc’s 2015-16 Injury Comeback
While 2013-14 and 2014-15 had a focus of trying to get the Rangers to hoist the Stanley Cup, the start of the 2015-16 season had a more personal meaning for Zuccarello.
During New York’s opening round series of the 2014-15 postseason against the Pittsburgh Penguins, Zuccarello was struck in the head by a puck hit off the stick of then-teammate Ryan McDonagh. The shot left the winger with a brain contusion, a hairline fracture in his skull and temporary loss of feeling in one of his arms. He also lost the ability to speak for four days.
While Zuccarello was back to skating by the time his team was defeated by the Tampa Bay Lightning in the Eastern Conference Finals, his teammates — especially McDonagh, who visited him in the hospital that night — still felt unnerved and upset to see their comrade hurt. Yet, his spirit and inner strength, being around the team as much as possible throughout the injury, helped motivate them in that run. Chris Kreider told ESPN, “It was real upsetting, but at the same time very inspirational and motivating to see him bounce back like he did.”
Zuccarello was told he’d make a full recovery, but he got back to things very quickly to start 2015-16. On Oct. 30, 2015 — the 11th game of the season — he scored all three goals in a win over the Toronto Maple Leafs for his first career hat trick.
By season’s end, Zuccarello was the leading scorer of the team, finishing with 61 points and a career-high 26 goals. His recovery, energy and play were honored as he was that season’s recipient of the Steven McDonald Extra Effort Award and a nominee for the Bill Masterton Trophy.
Alternate Captain & Playing Through Trade Talks
After Stepan and the Rangers parted ways before 2017-18, someone needed to fill the newly-vacant alternate captain spot. Zuccarello was a favorite to get the honor and it made sense, as he was consistently raking in points for the team, looked up to by teammates and a respected player in the locker room and around the league. One day before the Rangers opened the season, then-head coach Alain Vigneault gave Zuccarello the honor.
While the Rangers’ rebuilding process began, Zuccarello went on to show he could still be a solid player and leader for any team that would want him. He went on to score his 100th NHL career goal that season.
This season presented a bit of a challenge for him, however, as he struggled with injuries early on and admitted that the trade talks were getting to him. But after a reminder from David Quinn to control what he can, Zuccarello did that, playing with the same intensity, grit and passion that made him beloved in the first place.
“I think it tells you what a lot of people already knew around here; how mentally tough he was, how driven he was, how competitive he was, what a great teammate he was, and is,” Quinn told NHL.com.
Maybe moving Zuccarello was necessary for the Rangers to continue their rebuild and efforts to get younger and back into title contention. But it doesn’t mean it may sting, even if just a little, for the Rangers lose someone who was a big part of the franchise.
My name is Tom Albano and I cover the New York Rangers. I covered the team back in the 2015-16 season for a blog called Black and Blueshirts before the site network closed down. In addition, I’m a combat sports (i.e. MMA, boxing, etc) contributor for FIGHT SPORTS and host a weekly sports talk podcast called The Unspoken Podcast.