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Zulgad: No return on investment: Mats Zuccarello's underwhelming ways continue in Wild's return

Mats Zuccarello
Minnesota Wild right wing Mats Zuccarello passes the puck during the third period of an NHL hockey game against the Los Angeles Kings Saturday, March 7, 2020, in Los Angeles. (AP Photo/Mark J. Terrill)

Mats Zuccarello’s underwhelming first season with the Minnesota Wild came to an abrupt halt in March when the coronavirus pandemic hit. The winger’s performance was concerning given former general manager Paul Fenton had rewarded the veteran with a five-year, $30 million contract that included three years of a no-move clause.

Zuccarello was given a chance to alleviate that concern in the NHL’s return to play this month. Technically, this is the conclusion of the 2019-20 season; the reality is this is a new season and presented Zuccarello with a chance for a fresh start. The 32-year-old had had four-plus months to get his mind off of hockey and hit the reset button.

But two games into the Wild’s qualifying round series with the Vancouver Canucks in the Western Conference bubble in Edmonton, it appears that not much has changed with Zuccarello. Playing right wing on the third line with Alex Galchenyuk at center and Marcus Foligno on his other wing,  Zuccarello has no points, one shot attempted, one blocked shot, three hits and is averaging 9 minutes, 7 seconds of ice time. The kindest thing one can say is that he has been a non-factor.

This comes after Zuccarello had 15 goals and 37 points and was a minus-9 in 65 regular-season games, averaging 15:56 of ice time. That was Zuccarello’s lowest per-game ice time since he started playing on a regular basis for the New York Rangers in 2013-14.

If you had to pick a goat from the Wild’s third line in their 4-3 loss to the Canucks in Game 2 on Tuesday night, it would be Galchenyuk. Obtained by general manager Bill Guerin in the Jason Zucker trade with Pittsburgh, Galchenyuk appeared to have grown more comfortable playing center before the stoppage. But his decision to try to get fancy with the puck and make a drop pass near the offensive blue line led to a turnover that resulted in J.T. Miller’s goal early in the second period that gave Vancouver a 2-1 lead. The Canucks tied the series at 1-1 with the victory.

Galchenyuk is in the final season of his contract, giving the Wild the luxury of taking a look at him and then making a decision about whether they want to try to retain the 26-year-old. There is no such luxury when it comes to Zuccarello and that presents problems. The first is that unless Zuccarello agrees to waive his no-move clause, he isn’t going anywhere through the 2021-22 season and he will have to be protected for the expansion draft when Seattle enters the NHL before that season. The final two seasons of Zuccarello’s contract reportedly include a modified no-trade clause that will enable him to submit a list of 10 teams to which he can’t be dealt.

Fenton’s decision to give Zuccarello a significant free agent deal was a head-scratcher and ended up coming just over a month before the GM was relieved of his duties after only one season on the job. That makes Zuccarello’s contract Guerin’s problem and it’s actually a bigger issue than it appeared to be when the 2019-20 season started.

One of the results from the NHL’s loss of revenue caused by the pandemic is that the salary cap will remain flat at $81.5 million for at least next season and potentially beyond. Zuccarello’s cap hit of $6 million per season already was an issue before it became clear the cap would not increase. Now it’s a bigger one.

That  is unless Zuccarello starts to contribute more in Minnesota. Last season, he had 11 goals and 26 assists and was a minus-11 in 46 games with the New York Rangers before being dealt to Dallas at the trade deadline. Zuccarello had only one goal and two assists in two regular-season games with the Stars because he suffered a broken arm while blocking a shot in his first game with the team. He returned for the playoffs and had four goals and seven assists and was a plus-2 in 13 games.

That’s likely what got Fenton’s attention but Zuccarello’s dip in regular-season production also should have been factored into the decision. He had a career-high 26 goals and 61 points in 81 games in 2015-16 with the Rangers. The following two seasons, those totals dipped to 15 goals and 59 points in 80 games and then 16 goals and 53 points with a minus-10 in 80 games. Zuccarello, who was a fan favorite in New York, also went from being a plus-15 in 2016-17 to a minus-10 in 2017-18.

The Wild find themselves in an interesting situation with a roster that includes young and old, but in some cases the older players are nearing the end of their contracts, meaning Guerin can pay a guy like star winger Kevin Fiala. Zach Parise and Ryan Suter are under contract for five more seasons, but Mikko Koivu is in the final season of his contract and Eric Staal has one season left after this one.

Even if Guerin can can convince Zuccarello to waive his no-move clause, it’s unlikely anyone is going to agree to take that contract. But that is an issue Guerin can address once these summer time playoffs are over. Right now, Guerin and everybody else with the Wild would like to see Zuccarello make any impact, any type of impact, during the qualifying round.