Mats Zuccarello started his New York Rangers career as a virtual unknown, but the diminutive forward affectionately known as The Hobbit has become one of the team's biggest stars. The ballad of Zuccarello—transplant from Oslo, Norway—is an interesting one, but how did his unexpected rise to stardom come to be?
The short answer is that Zuccarello is making the most of the opportunities presented to him this year, and his success is a byproduct of hard work and time spent developing since joining the Rangers in 2010.
"Zuke" was signed as a free agent after his play during international play for Norway got the attention of various executives in NHL circles. General manager Glen Sather ultimately nabbed him at a reasonable rate, and Zuccarello was off to Hartford to start his professional career. After a hot start, the Rangers called him up, and he was rather impressive in a secondary role.
The Rangers winger used to be known exclusively for his prowess in the shootout, and that skill was the only reason he was kept on the roster as the 12th, sometimes 13th, forward. Although he was one of the Rangers' most skilled offensive players at the time, John Tortorella wanted him to strengthen his all-around game in Hartford.
During the 2011–12 season, Zuccarello appeared in only 10 games with the Rangers, and after the season was over he bolted to the KHL, frustrated that he was being jerked around like a yo-yo.
Fortunately for the Rangers, Zuccarello had second thoughts about life with Metallurg Magnitogorsk, and he rejoined the team for the final 15 games of a lockout-delayed 2012-13 campaign. His return to the lineup showed that Zuccarello was a changed player and similar to the player he is today.
Currently, Zuccarello is the toughest and most outspoken player on the roster. The Rangers' website lists Zuccarello as a 5'7", 175-pound forward, but he plays like he is 7'5" and 275 pounds. The Blueshirts Brotherhood forum, a message board for Ranger fans, effectively gave Zuccarello the nickname "Honey Badger," a reference to a well-known internet meme. This is so apropos because when No. 36 steps on the ice, he simply "don't care."
Zuccarello will chirp, nudge or grab anyone who wrongs him or his teammates, and he has become the team's new Sean Avery. He is the team's Avery in the sense that he is an effective pest that can get underneath the skin of his opponents.
He also has learned not to let his size limit him, and as of late, he has looked like a lite version of Theo Fleury. While no one is saying that Zuccarello will go on to have as talented of a career as Fleury, it is fair to say that he has been approaching the game in a similar way.
For example, Zuccarello has made perfect use of his hands, speed and agility to carry the puck up the ice. He has also used his newfound attitude and edge to get under the skin of his opponents. When you put the two elements together, you have the 2013-14 version of Zuccarello.
Previously, Zuccarello's success was discredited because of a small sample size, but the feisty winger has continued to produce all season long. He is second in team scoring behind Brad Richards with 25 points in 37 games, and he has been an important fixture on the power play.
Zuccarello's creativity and pure skill has been greatly utilized by Alain Vigneault, and the Blueshirts bench boss should be given credit for giving him a wake-up call early in the season. After a lackluster start through seven games, Zuccarello was named a healthy scratch for one game.
Upon returning to the lineup, Zuccarello responded with a goal, and he went on to record 10 points during a 10-game stretch. The healthy scratch has proved to be a pivotal factor for Zuccarello, and the Honey Badger has been a factor either offensively or emotionally ever since.
As of late, Zuccarello has once again proved himself to be a shootout ace in addition to everything he has added to his arsenal this season.
All in all, Zuccarello’s rise to stardom has been unexpected in every way possible. He was signed to be a secondary threat this season, and his one-year, $1.15 million contract reflects that. The 26-year-old winger is slated to finish the season just shy of 60 points, and it would be his best career season to date.
To this point, Zuccarello has continually improved, so it is fair to say that next year could be even better for the winger who has successfully adapted his European style of hockey to a North American ice surface.
He should be rewarded with a nice contract this summer, not only because of his talent and production, but also because of his loyalty. Zuccarello elected arbitration this summer because he wanted to remain a member of the Rangers. This is the place he wants to be, and he certainly has made that clear to Rangers management with his play this season.
Zuccarello's story truly is one of the best in recent memory for the Rangers, and it is great to see him succeeding. In three years he has evolved from being a one-trick pony to one of the team's most important players.
Henrik Lundqvist has been the Rangers' team MVP since arriving in 2005, but it is safe to say that honor could go to Zuccarello this season. Nothing except death and taxes are guaranteed in this life, but a betting man would be wise to put their stock in Zuccarello having a strong finish to the season.