The Minnesota Wild made a big splash in free agency when they added former New York Rangers and Dallas Stars forward Mats Zuccarello. The contract came in at five years, with an average annual value (AAV) of $6 million.
Zuccarello now becomes the Wild’s second-highest paid forward, trailing only Zach Parise, but for a team that has been lacking in dynamic scoring threats, the Norwegian winger could prove to be the perfect fit… for now.
Zuccarello’s Storied Career
An eight-year veteran of the Rangers’ organization, Zuccarello has traditionally scored 50-plus points. Limited by injury this past season, he only reached 40, but his output was never lower than 49 points in any of the five seasons before that. That’s an impressive accomplishment for the diminutive forward, who stands just 5-foot-8.
Historically, Zuccarello has been a dynamic playmaking forward. He plays on special teams, logging some minutes on the penalty kill and making a big impact on the power play. In his career, he has 21 goals and 77 assists on the man advantage, just two short of 100 total points.
In his career, his team has controlled the play with Zuccarello on the ice. His high danger chances for percentage, a measurement of how many dangerous scoring opportunities a team has with a player on the ice, has only dipped below 50 percent for the season for one season. Even then, he barely fell below that mark, at 49.89 percent.
His strong offensive play and lovable personality made Zuccarello, popularly nicknamed “The Hobbit” due to his height, a fan favorite in New York. It was heartbreaking for fans and even teammates, like best friend Henrik Lundqvist, to see him leave. As part of their rebuilding effort, New York traded Zuccarello to the Stars. After an impressive end to the season, he became an unrestricted free agent.
Zuccarello was a hotly pursued free agent, and rightfully so. His career numbers proved him to be both an impact forward in the top-six and the best Norwegian-born player in NHL history. He drew interest from the Wild, the Stars, and the Colorado Avalanche, among other teams, but ultimately, he chose Minnesota as his future home.
Minnesota’s Forward Corps
Zuccarello, along with other new addition Ryan Hartman, joins an interesting group of forwards in Minnesota. He is expected to play on a line with Eric Staal and Jason Zucker, assuming the latter survives the trade rumors surrounding him.
That top line would help the Wild significantly. They desperately need scoring punch, having finished last season fifth-worst in the league with 2.6 goals per game. Had he played a full season, Zuccarello’s 68-point pace would have easily led the Wild. And his superior playmaking ability could help Staal and Zucker approach the 42 and 33 goals they scored in the 2017-18 season, respectively.
Even with the addition of Zuccarello, the Wild will not have one of the league’s elite forward groups, but the Norwegian will certainly help them make up for their deficiencies. That, along with the continued development of young forwards like Luke Kunin, Jordan Greenway, Kevin Fiala and Ryan Donato could at least put Minnesota’s forwards in the middle of the NHL pack.
Are the Wild Too Old?
The concern with Zuccarello’s new deal is age and term. He will turn 32 before the start of the season, and he’ll only be beginning a five-year contract. Staal, Parise, and Ryan Suter are all 34, captain Mikko Koivu is 36, and even goaltender Devan Dubnyk is 33. Meanwhile, they seem intent on trading Zucker, who is early in his prime at 27.
The Wild are caught in an unenviable position. Suter and Parise’s contracts were signed before the last major lockout, and extend through 2025. With $15 million locked up in those two aging players, they are handcuffed from moving in a new direction.
Meanwhile, Minnesota’s prospect core is void of any impact players, outside of Kirill Kaprizov, who is still stuck in Russia, and Matthew Boldy, whom the team just drafted at 18 years of age.
Zuccarello’s contract may come back to bite the Wild in the final season or two, but they will have several contracts that really hurt them when that time comes. For now, he makes perfect sense: he strengthens the core and helps them push for the playoffs before the core is too old to contend.
Are the Wild Done?
With that said, the Wild likely aren’t done with their offseason maneuvering. It seems likely that Zucker will be moved, although that decision makes little sense to the outside observer. They also have $11 million in cap space to play with, and may be a partner for teams who are looking for relief.
But Zuccarello will likely be the team’s biggest offseason move and, for the time being, he makes perfect sense. It may not be the headline-grabbing acquisition of a player like Artemi Panarin, but he is a perfect complement to a forward corps in desperate need of more scoring.
Stephen Ground is an author with The Hockey Writers and is co-host of the Two Guys No Cup Podcast. He enjoys studying the numbers and providing fresh looks at various stories.