Early in the season, this writer opined how long the New York Rangers should have patience with Mats Zuccarello, and it appears that the Blueshirts took the right course of action with their Norwegian winger.
The 5'7" winger returned to the Rangers after signing a one-year contract this offseason, and early in the season, it looked like Zuccarello didn't belong. He was struggling, making bad decisions and he ended up on the fourth line. That led to Alain Vigneault scratching Zuccarello, and that decision has been a turning point in the 26-year-old's career.
Zuccarello responded with a goal in his first game after returning to the lineup, and he told Pat Leonard of the New York Daily News about his struggles.
You put pressure on yourself to do well, Zuccarello said after practice at the Garden. When it’s not going well, it’s something you think about every night. But it was nice to get one (goal) yesterday and to get the win.
Zuccarello was scratched against the Philadelphia Flyers on Oct. 24. Since then, he has appeared in 10 games, and he has tallied two goals and eight assists for 10 points. This is the type of production the Rangers need out of a player such as Zuccarello, especially when you consider he is currently on the top line.
The Hobbit has had an average NHL career to date, but a second chance under Vigneault ultimately can lead to Zuccarello making something out of his career. Under the previous regime of John Tortorella, Zuccarello never got a chance to etch a role for himself, but under AV, he has the chance to show why he is an NHL player.
During Zuccarello's first season in North America, he tallied 29 points in 36 games with the Connecticut Whale of the AHL and was eventually promoted to the NHL. He was given the opportunity because of his offensive upside, and he came through by recording 23 points in 42 games.
However, because Zuccarello didn't fit into John Tortorella's system, he was demoted and continued to play in the AHL. Once again, he thrived in the minors, and he was promoted once again. Despite his ability to play at the NHL level, Zuccarello bolted to the KHL because he was never given a consistent opportunity to show his skill.
Ultimately, Zuccarello came back to the NHL last year, but he is finally showing why he can be a valuable member for the Rangers. He is a speedy skater, he is a creative playmaker and he is a great special teams contributor.
He also has added some grit to his game, and he has become a bit of a pest. During the Rangers' loss against the New Jersey Devils on Tuesday, Zuccarello was cycling the net, and he was clearly agitating Martin Brodeur.
This extra dimension makes Zuccarello more than a one-trick pony, and it makes him a distraction while on the ice. This element of his game allows him to create space for his teammates, and it allows him to draw more penalties.
Overall, this has been a renaissance year to date for Mats Zuccarello. He is playing the best hockey of his career, and he is being a factor for the Rangers. The Rangers can be a strong playoff team if everyone is pulling their weight, and the resurgence of Zuccarello under Vigneault has been one of the best stories of the season thus far.