The Garden Faithful grew to love "The Hobbit" (www.zimbio.com)

Grading The Rangers: Mats Zuccarello

Mats Zuccarello may not intimidate you with his size, but beware his ability. (www.msg.com)

After his standout play for Norway during the 2010 Winter Olympics, the 2010 Swedish Elite League MVP (64 pts in 55 games with Modo) Mats Zuccarello-Aasen signed a 2-year deal with the New York Rangers on May 26th. Nicknamed the “Norwegian Hobbit” because of his diminutive 5′ 7” 174lb frame, Zuccarello looked to bring his offensive talents to Broadway. The deal was considered a surprise considering there wasn’t much talk leading up to the deal being announced. However, it was well received by the organization, which felt they were getting a highly skilled offensive player, and fans that watched Zuccarello play outstandingly for his country during the Olympics. He wasn’t guaranteed spot with the Rangers; in fact he would start the year with the Connecticut Whale of the AHL. Would he remain down there for long?

Let’s take a look at his 2010-2011 season:

What We Expected

Coming off his performance in the Olympics and heading in to training camp, Zuccarello was expected to compete for a top-9 spot with the Rangers. Although, it was no guarantee he would make it. The Rangers were concerned with how his size would translate into the physical NHL game. Zuccarello would be competing against Rangers prospects Evgeny Grachev, Dale Weise, and Derek Stepan. Newcomers Ruslan Fedotenko, Todd White, Tim Kennedy, Derek Boogaard, and Alex Frolov all were in camp and vying for spots as well. It was safe to say it was a crowded bunch, but that didn’t deter Zuccarello from translating his Olympic success into NHL games. He showed flashes during the preseason but the organization felt the 23-year-old Zuccarello needed time down in the minors to transition to the North American NHL game.

How He Did

Far better than could reasonably be expected. Zuccarello was called up to the Rangers on Dec. 22nd and would make his NHL debut December 23rd against the Tampa Bay Lightning, remaining with the club the rest of the season except for a short April demotion. Prior to his call-up, Zuccarello had 24 points (13g, 11a) in 32 games with the Whale and would be joining a Rangers team needing offense.

In 42 games with the Rangers, “Zuke” put up 23 points (6g, 17a) and gradually became accustom to the smaller NHL rinks. Interestingly, out of those 17 assists, 9 of them came with the man advantage, a possible indicator that Zuccarello could help the Rangers power play going forward. Zuccarello immediately showed an ability to perform well in the shootout, converting his first 4 attempts and 5 of 9 total.

At times, Zuccarello displayed a chemistry playing with fellow rookie Derek Stepan that could lead to a formidable offensive pairing in the future. However, as the season wore on, it wore down on Zuke’s small frame and his play diminished, not previously being used to the NHL “grind.” He only played in Game 1 of the playoffs and was subbed out for Sean Avery the rest of the series.

The highlight of the season for Mats Zuccarello was his first NHL goal against the Carolina Hurricanes in overtime at MSG. It came from an impossible angle and the celebration that ensued was surely one the finer moments of the season.

Final Grade: B-

I feel the Mats Zuccarello signing will pay dividends in the future. Despite being a small player, Zuke clearly knows how to make plays in the offensive zone and will only improve as he plays more. You can’t discount anyone who can contribute offensively. He was a weapon in the shootout for a team that needed to scratch and claw its way to nearly every victory. His OT goal against Carolina and 2-goal performance against the Flyers were indicators of exactly what Zuke is capable of. He’s not going to be a Martin St. Louis, Mike Cammalieri or Brian Gionta by any means, but if Mats Zuccarello can be a 15 to 20 goal, 50-point player on a Rangers team that needs every bit of offense, then he’ll be a vital component in the Rangers blueprint.

Going Forward

Zuccarello is signed through the 2011-2012 season with a reasonable $1.75 million cap hit. With the Rangers looking to improve their offense this offseason, you’ll hear Brad Richards name tossed around constantly. But, look for Zuccarello to factor more in their plans. Assuming he comes into training camp and performs well, there isn’t any reason to believe Zuccarello won’t be with the Rangers next year. He does need to make improvements with getting shots on net and his game along the boards and down low, but that will come as he continues to acclimate himself to the NHL.

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Tags: 2010 Olympics AHL Alex Frolov Connecticut Whale Derek Boogaard Derek Stepan Mats Zuccarello New York Rangers Philadelphia Flyers Ruslan Fedotenko Sean Avery

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