Mats Zuccarello was Minnesota’s prized possession in free agency, inking a five-year $30 million contract with a full no-movement clause.
The talented playmaker spent nine years with the New York Rangers (with a pit stop in Dallas) and was beloved by his peers. When Minnesota made its trip to Madison Square Garden this season, you could see from the tribute video how much Zuccarello meant to the Rangers. You have to be a very special player and individual to garner that kind of respect from an original-six franchise.
Now signing a 32-year-old to a full no-movement clause is worth raising an eyebrow, but Zuccarello has had a significant impact on Wild this season.
So far Zuccarello has 22 points (9 goals and 13 assists) in 32 games, good for a 52-point pace by season’s end, which spot on for his career average. Just like every other Wild player, he was not immune to Minnesota’s turbulent start to the season when the team won just five of their first 16 games. During that skid, Zuccarello was minus-9 and had just seven points (three goals and four assists).
However, the Norweigan looks more like the player he was in New York as of late. Since Nov. 19, he has 15 points (6 goals and 9 assists) in his past 16 games. Also during that stretch, he’s been on the ice for 16 goals and just 10 against. Zuccarello is more of a playmaker than a sniper, as he’s eclipsed 20 goals just once in his nine-year career. His shooting percentage of 19.6% this season is rather high and his 1.31 shots per game – which is a career low and down from 2.10 in his career average – suggests that will level off soon.
Although he’s never been a Corsi darling, Zuccarello’s 46.00 CF% this season is the lowest of his career. Now, that’s a bit indicative of his deployment, as he’s starting in both zones at nearly the same rate, when he’s typically be someone who starts more in the offensive zone.
Zuccarello has spent the majority of the season with Eric Staal and Jason Zucker, which in theory, is a good line. You have a solid offensive-minded center in Staal and a speedy winger in Zucker who isn’t afraid to get in front of the net. Plug in a playmaker like Zuccarello and on paper that sounds like a solid combination. Well, advanced metrics say they really haven’t been anything special. They’ve been out possessed and outshout mightily when on the ice.
The tricky part with analytics is marrying it with an eye test. But when you watch Zuccarello, you can see why he’s a special player. Multiple injuries to forwards like Zucker, Joel Eriksson Ek and Mikko Koivu have forced Boudreau to scramble his lines. Opting to keep Staal and Zuccarello together, Boudreau elevated Zach Parise to their line and the trio came through with a big night night on the score sheet against the Coyotes on Dec. 19. Especially Zuccarello, who had a three-point night and showed why he’s such a difference maker.
His first assist was a breakout from the defensive zone, which fed Ryan Donato for a breakaway goal and the second was a no-look pass to Eric Staal that Rangers fans remember well. Finally, his third-period goal capped off a chaotic but entertaining 8-5 Wild win.
— FOX Sports North (@fsnorth) December 20, 2019
— Here's Your Replay ⬇️ (@HeresYourReplay) December 20, 2019
“We talk a lot and we knew each other from before,” Zuccarello said to Fox Sports North after the win on playing with Staal and Parise. “Obviously he’s (Staal) a good, smart player. He just has to get open or find him open. Zach was really good today. It felt good. Our line felt good.”
If Zuccarello continues to be a point for game player like he’s been as of late, his advanced numbers will certainly rebound. When the Wild traded away Mikael Granlund last February, they had a void in their offense. Granlund, who’s five years younger than Zuccarello, is having a lost season in Nashville and is on pace for a career low 33-point season. There might come a time where Zuccarello’s contract terms become an issue, but for right now he’s been key to the Wild’s resurgence over the past six weeks. Iif Minnesota is serious about being in the playoff team, Zuccarello will likely have a lot to do with that.