The New York Ranger fan base has lovingly adopted “The Hobbit” into the team culture. Mats Zuccarello has embraced the nickname by tweeting about it with pictures and the hashtag “#JustGoWithIt” during last season. The press core has taken to calling him Zucc. Zucc is the type of guy who is noticed on the ice for size just as much as Zdeno Chara, only for inverse reasons. At 5ft 7in and 175lbs, Zucc is one of the shortest players currently in the NHL. For many Ranger fans, Zucc is something of a new face without much background. Truth is there is much more to Zucc than meets the eye.
Many people are aware of Zucc’s ties to Modo after last year’s battle with John Tortorella and maling decisions to bring Zucc back to New York. Zucc has been a hockey player for 21 years; that’s impressive for a 26 year old player. He began playing league hockey at five years old.By the time he reached 18 he had been scouted and began playing full time in the GET-ligen; the top league in Norway. He also accepted a scholarship to attend the Norwegian College of Elite Sport.
Zucc’s rookie campaign, 2005-2006, yielded 5 goals for 8 points over 21 games with the GET-ligen Frisk Tigers. The following season he posted 34 goals for 59 points in 43 games. This was the first of 2 consecutive seasons Zucc finished third in the league in scoring. The second season he posted 24 goals for 64 points in 33 games.For those of you looking at math, that’s point per game averages of .4, .7, and 1.9 respectively. His 1.9 points per game average in 2006-2007 helped Zucc lead his team to the best regular season record for the year. It also paved the way for a contract with Modo Hockey in Sweden.
The transition to the Swedish Elite League, now SHL, was seamless as Zucc posted 12 goals for 40 points in 35 games (1.14pts per game) in his first season. His second season, 2009-2010, he led his team with 23 goals and the league with 64 points in 55 games for a 1.2 points per game average. With numbers like these, it was only a matter of time before an NHL contract would surface.
The afore mentioned NHL contract came from none other than our Rangers. An Entry Level Contract (ELC) was offered and saw Zucc join the Connecticut Whale (now Hartford Wolf Pack). 29 points in his first 36 games on smaller ice isn’t anything to scoff at especially with 13 goals, that’s .8 points per game. We know the recent history with Tortorella sending Zucc back and forth between teams. For some reason Torts did not feel the same love for “The Hobbit” as much of the fan base. Early in this season, it seemed as though the same plague may have been following Zucc, as he was benched by Alain Vignealt.
In 28 games this season, Zucc has posted 5 goals for 18 points for a .6 points per game average. He is credited with 1 game winning goals this season. Technically he has only 3 years of NHL experience; and in the 95 games he’s played he has posted 16 goals for 52 points for a .6 points per game total and he has never ended a regular season as a negative. He has only played 13 post season games. In those games he maintained his .5 points per game average by posting on goal for seven points; showing that he adds value and plays to his best nearly every game on the ice. In order to get the full picture, it is important to look away from statistics and watch games. What is very noticeable on the ice, is the way Zucc plays fearlessly against guys who severely outsize him. He skates hard after the puck and battles relentlessly against the boards. He will not stop until the whistle sounds or the puck is free. Zucc seemed to take over a role familiar to fans against the Devils earlier in the year; even the announcers noticed and commented how he had become the new Avery. It was very clear that he was getting Marty Brodeur’s nerves by playing a strong game in front of the net looking for lose pucks. When Brodeur face washed Zucc after a play the referees broke up the horde to reveal Zucc in a headlock and nearly off the ice. Even against Boston in the playoffs last year, when he became only the second Norwegian to play in an NHL post season, he did not back down from guys like Chara and Lucic; in fact, he joked about size.
His personality makes him nearly as well loved off the ice as Marty Biron (I love Marty so that’s a huge comparison coming from me). Zucc joked about Chara lifting him over his head and crushing him if he wanted to do so. This year he has become a favorite for intermission interviews. He has bragged about his “mom’s boss meatloaf” and really proving that he is loving life as a Ranger. For all of this some still say he has his downfalls; citing pass his pass first tendencies. Looking at his stats it is easy to discern that he is more of the assist type of player than he is a goal scoring player. He also gets his goals in the net as well.
This year Zuccarello is on a 1 year 1.150mil contract. He is one of the lowest paid players on the team and one of the biggest contributors. He remains a Restricted Free Agent (RFA) when this season ends, though I have a feeling he will be a player who will get a raise, or an offer sheet. He’s the type of player who plays well on any line and with any type of players. While I wouldn’t say he has high hockey IQ, I will say he bears the amazing talent of being able to adjust his game to the players around him but still produce offense; he is currently third on the team in points. Just because he is outsized on the ice, doesn’t mean he can’t make a difference.