Monday, December 27, 2010

Zuccarello-Aasen is Back; Can the Norwegian Hobbit Use His Magic To Make It Permanent?

Scott Levy/NHLI via Getty Images
Following his debut performance last Thursday it was clear the Rangers would have to find a spot for Mats Zuccarello-Aasen in their lineup because he demonstated he could play at this level and he added elements the team has lacked.  His play had changed the question from if he would get a chance to when would he get his next one.  The Rangers have answered that question by recalling the Norwegian Hobbit from the Connecticut Whale for the second time in the last week in time to play tonight against the Islanders.  So the question this Monday is not whether or when we would see Zuccarello again, but for how long will his stay be this time?  Management will ultimately have the right to choose the answer to that question, but it will be up to Zuccarello-Aasen to frame the options.

The Rangers sent him down following Thursday’s game against the Lightning because the NHL club was off until tonight’s game while the AHL team had a game yesterday for him to play in.  In the game, ironically against the Islanders AHL affiliate, Zuccarello would have an assist in the 4-0 Whale win.  That particular rationale will no longer be viable as the Rangers and Whale have virtually the same schedule this week and the Rangers schedule gets back to a more normal consistency, so now decisions will be based purely on play.

The reason there were questions surrounding whether or not he would be called back up were because of the following series of topics: things that had been previously said by the Rangers staff regarding him readiness; the fact he was not called up until Marian Gaborik was unable to play; that Gaborik was expected back for Monday’s game; that Zuccarello must have a top six role. 

Apparently what the coaching staff and management saw in Zuccarello’s opening act in the NHL was enough to eliminate all of those other issues and come to the realization that with that kind of talent and the team's need to add talent you must find a place for him.  The decision is not that hard right now as there is an easy fix in dropping Chris Drury out of the top six and letting Zuccarello take a spot in it.  Zuccarello adds a level of skill and creativity to a lineup that frankly lacks both in a significant way.  The Rangers have built their season on their grit and toughness and to add a talent they have not really had is something the club needs to take another step as long as they continue to play their style and not just watch as the talent goes to work.

As easy as the decision to bring Zuccarello-Aasen back now is it gets more complicated in a couple weeks with the scheduled return of Vinny Prospal and then even more so when Ryan Callahan is ready to return.  The timetable on these injuries should give Zuccarello at least a 2-3 week window to truly cement a role on the club before Prospal is ready to be back in the lineup.

I am with many of the fans who believe that even in Prospal’s return Zuccarello should stay with the club and in a top six role, especially seeing as how Prospal is 35 and is not part of the franchise long term.  The problem is Prospal has a history with Tortorella so he gets the benefit of the doubt and with all the different combinations that have been tried to get Marian Gaborik going you can bet that Torts will look to Prospal to try and rekindle the chemistry he had with Gabby last season. 

The only roster related move that would need to happen when Prospal comes back would be Todd White finally going down to the AHL, but the lineup does become more complicated.  If Prospal slots in on the line with Gaborik it means that Dubinsky likely slides back down and then the choice would be between Frolov and Zuccarello on the second line.  That choice is pretty obvious for most of us right now, but for Zuke to make it reality it will depend on his play these next few weeks because not only would that push Frolov down in the lineup, but it would also push someone like Avery or Christensen out of the lineup altogether, which both of them have been in danger of already this season at different points.

The lineup and roster would get even more complicated by the time Callahan came back because if no trades were made to keep Zuccarello on the NHL roster they would have to waive another player from the roster to stay within roster size limits.  If Zuccarello plays how he is capable it is certainly possible the Rangers will move someone out via trade or waivers, but if he shows any struggles he is the easier decision in sending him back down.

When the season started Zuccarello-Aasen was sent down to the AHL to learn the North American style of play and adjust to the smaller ice surfaces and after the initial struggles he did that to an extent that he forced the Rangers to give him a chance at the NHL level.  With that chance last Thursday he proved that he belonged at this level and forced the club to bring him back again for tonight.  Given the complications that lurk a few weeks down the line MZA will once again have to force the move to keep him because while there is no question that long term there is no question that MZA has a larger potential impact on the Rangers franchise than Prospal, Avery or Christensen, as we know that does not always get the greatest level of consideration in making all roster decisions. I believe he will get every opportunity to do just that now that he is back to prove that he should stay here so while the Rangers had a certain schedule in mind for Zuccarello when the year started as has been the case at each turn the puck will be on his stick to force the team change that schedule.  He will have to do it one more time and force them to keep the hobbit on the big stage and let him try to become lord of the MSG rink.  With the fierce determination he plays with and his willingness to mix it up even at his size I would not bet against him succeeding.