Thursday, December 23, 2010

Zuccarello Creativity Will Bring New Heights For Grinding Rangers

The 2010-11 version of the New York Rangers has successfully created an identity for itself as a physical grinding team that never quits on a game or each other.  This style has done very well for them as a whole, but has struggled to some extent against the more skilled teams in the league on nights where the were unable to get their forechecking going.  The issue for the club has never been a lack of commitment to the system itself, but the lack of another way when that path was not working on a particular night.  Tonight they will see their first glimpse of a player who can provide other options in Mats Zuccarello-Aasen as he brings something that for the better part of 35 games has been lacking; creativity.

When the Rangers signed the Norwegian Hobbit or as some refer to him the Frodo from Modo many fans were extremely excited to see what he could do based mainly on his point totals in the Swedish Elite League and what he had shown during the 2010 Olympic hockey tournament.  The assumption for many is he could step in from the beginning and be on the NHL roster, but that failed to recognize the transition necessary from the European style game to the North American game with the biggest transition being in the size of the ice surface.

During the preseason the Rangers and their fans saw flashes of what Zuccarello could bring to the table, but it was clear that an adjustment period would be necessary in the AHL.  The adjustment period to the style of game and the size of the rinks would take a little time as in his first 12 games he would only score  two goals and have zero assists, which would get to the point of some internet rumors of him leaving and going back to Europe.  It was as if the rumors motivated or sparked him because right after that things began to click for the talented 23-year-old from Oslo.  Feeling more comfortable with the style of play, size of the ice surface and the team itself Zuccarello would take off scoring 11 goals and adding 11 assists in his last 22 games for the Connecticut Whale. 

The numbers themselves had fans calling for Zuccarello to be up even before an injury to Gaborik, but what is impressive beyond the numbers is the way that he is getting them.  The highlights on Zuccarello show him scoring and setting up his teammates in all sorts of ways: on the rush; give and go’s; bursts of speed to find space; incredible cross ice feeds.  These types of things bring a variance to the Rangers one way style of producing offense this year.  When you have a player who can create situations from where none might otherwise exist the burden on the rest of the team to grind as much as they have is lessened considerably.  It is what many of us expect a player of the skill level of Marian Gaborik or Michael Del Zotto to do for the Rangers, but they have not been able to consistently do this season.  I do not want to put that kind of burden on a player making his National Hockey League debut to be the key to the offense or for the Rangers to change the system.  All I am saying is that in the right situations he provides options the Rangers have not had this season by what his combination of speed, hands, vision, passing can bring, but it is the way he handles the puck that shines brightest.

The shift from the AHL to the NHL will take another period of adjustment, but given the way he has shown himself over the last few months I have no doubt that given the opportunity he will make that step with the only question being the time the Rangers give him to do so.  The things he brings to the table warrant him getting every chance there is, but patience and consistency are not always high on the Rangers agenda.  It will also allow for the coaching staff to give him some level of freedom to play his game outside of the dump and chase type system they love to employ. 

Tonight we will see the debut of yet another talented young player in a Rangers sweater and for that it is no wonder the fans of this organization have hope for the future to a level they have not seen quite some time, but like all the others it will be up to Zuccarello to prove he can be what his skill level says is possible.  When you watch the combination of speed, vision, creativity, hands and defensive awareness that he brings to the ice you understand why the comparisons to Martin St. Louis were made when he came and not just for his size.  Those obviously are lofty comparisons and large shoes to fill and he certainly will not do it all in one night, but tonight will be the start of an NHL journey to establish his own legacy in this league with the man of which the comparisons are made on the other side of the ice.  So for the Frodo from Modo as like with any other Hobbit this is the next step in fulfilling his destiny.