|Photo by: avigerver|
Following last night’s game to close out the Rangers schedule prior to the All-Star break the team optioned down five players to the Connecticut Whale. All of the players sent down came up to fill spots vacated by the myriad of injuries to the NHL roster. One player noticeably absent from the list of those heading back to the AHL was Mats Zuccarello. It is no surprise that Zuccarello was not on the list, but as much as head coach John Tortorella tries to skate the question, him not being there was a statement on Zuccarello being here to stay. When all the missing forwards return to full healthy Zuccarello has earned his place to be in this lineup every night.
It has only been 17 games in the NHL, but he has proven he belongs and that he brings elements to the Rangers they do not have without him. There is the obvious of his shootout expertise, in which he is a perfect 4-for-4, but even that is a symbol of something larger. Possibly the most important characteristic that Zuccarello brings to the Rangers is a swagger the team does not have enough of as a unit. It is that swagger that allowed Zuccarello to take a penalty shot in his NHL debut like he had been doing it for years at this level. It is that swagger that allows him the confidence to employ the same exact move on all of his shootout attempts without a thought to trying a different one until someone shows they can stop it.
Obviously to go with that confidence and swagger one must have the skill to deliver and he certainly has the goods. Zuccarello is a combination of vision, speed, passing ability, grit, finish and creativity that have made all who have played with him better. Those skills were on display last night as he had a career high three assists to boost his season totals to 3-8-11 in those 17 games.
On a team that lacks creativity, high level talent, and swagger Zuccarello is the perfect mix for this Rangers club and the fact he has proven he can perform at the NHL level has made him a critical piece to the team’s hopes this season. There will be debate in the coming weeks as players begin to return from injury as to exactly where Zuccarello fits in the lineup, but there shall be no debate whether or not he does have a place.
Even with his activation, mentally I am discounting anything significant from Vinny Prospal this season, but for the sake of this exercise let us assume he comes back. If Prospal does come back we can safely assume he will get an opportunity to try and spark last year’s success with Marian Gaborik again. I see the two most successful lines for the team over the course of the season being reunited when healthy. For me that leaves Stepan, Avery, Gaborik, Prospal, Wolski, Zuccarello as the other six forwards with Drury and Christensen both other outside looking in. To me those lines set up beautifully for the Rangers as Wolski, Stepan, Zuccarello played very well together and Avery, Prospal, Gaborik should work well as all have had chemistry with one another.
If the Rangers make the decision to role four lines they will have depth that rivals any team in the NHL. Ignoring the order, if possible, I would roll these four lines and look to keep the even strength minutes pretty even at roughly 12 minutes per line.
Players like Dubinsky, Callahan, Boyle, Prust will get an addition 3 minutes a game killing penalties. Dubinsky and Callahan along with Gaborik, Prospal, Zuccarello, Wolski, Stepan will also get additional minutes on the power play unit. These lines are deep enough and even enough that having most of the forwards playing between 12 and 18 minutes a night will not be a hindrance to the on ice results game-to-game and it should keep everyone involved fresh for the stretch and playoff run. A run that Zuccarello will be instrumental in helping them make.