Signing Mats Zuccarello to Extension Should Be New York Rangers' Top Priority

Tom Urtz Jr.@@TomUrtzJrContributor IFebruary 13, 2015

TORONTO, ON - FEBRUARY 10:  Mats Zuccarello #36 of the New York Rangers skates during NHL game action against the Toronto Maple Leafs at the Air Canada Centre on February 10, 2015 in Toronto, Ontario, Canada. (Photo by Graig Abel/NHLI via Getty Images)
Graig Abel/Getty Images

The New York Rangers will enter familiar territory this offseason when evaluating which free agents will stay and go.

When making a decision on winger Mats Zuccarello, team brass should use recent history to guide it so that history is not repeated.

Last July, the Rangers decided to let a middle-aged player walk via unrestricted free agency, and they replaced him with a veteran player born in a different decade. The players in question are 28-year-old Anton Stralman and 38-year-old Dan Boyle, and the decision hasn’t looked good for the Blueshirts thus far. 

Although both are different players, it was still foolhardy for the Rangers to let a younger player go and replace him with a player on the verge of retirement.

The battle this time will be between re-signing Zuccarello or Martin St. Louis, and it should be a very easy decision to make that ensures that "Zuuuucccc" chants bellow throughout Madison Square Garden for years to come.

Although St. Louis was a key part during the Rangers’ run to the Stanley Cup, it has become abundantly clear that he isn’t the same player he was last season. His production is slipping, his ice time is being reduced and his age is showing.

During the Rangers' victory on Thursday against the Colorado Avalanche, St. Louis played a season-low 14 minutes and 31 seconds, and committed a terrible turnover that gave the Avs new life.

MSL's Production Since 1/10/15
GamesGoalsAssistsPoints
14055
Source: NHL.com

He hasn't scored a goal in over a month, and his declining play is only making Zuccarello's recent hot streak look even better.

"The Hobbit" has nine points in his last seven games. On the season, he's posted 11 goals and 32 points in 51 games.

Zuccarello is on pace to finish with 17 goals and 50 points, which would only sit nine points behind last season's production. Taking what he's done this year and in 2013-14, Zuccarello has 91 points in the past 128 regular-season games (0.71 points per game).

That amounts to 58 points a season and exactly what the Rangers need from a top-sixer going forward.

He is only 27, and there’s a good chance he will continue to produce at this rate until his mid-30s, unlike St. Louis who is entering his 40s. While his regular stats are solid, his advanced stats—which will soon be accessible on NHL.comare even better.

In the meantime, here’s a look at Zuccarello’s puck-possession numbers and production per 60 minutes:

http://ownthepuck.blogspot.ca/2015/01/horizontal-bar-graph-player-evaluation.html

These numbers paint a good picture of the role Zuccarello fills on the team and only reinforce the need to keep him under contract past this season.

Corsi Percentage
PlayerCF% OverallCF% 5-on-5
Mats Zuccarello55.252.2
Martin St. Louis55.147.7
Source: war-on-ice.com

War-on-ice.com makes things even clearer in terms of relative Corsi percentage, as Zuccarello is clearly doing a good job of driving five-on-five possession. There are a number of other advanced stats you could use to tell the same story, but we will keep things simple.

According to NHL Numbers, the Rangers have limited salary-cap space and a number of players with expiring deals.

Key Free Agents
PlayerTypeCurrent Cap Hit
Martin St. Louis, 39UFA$5.625M
Mats Zuccarello, 27UFA$3.5M
Derek Stepan, 24RFA$3.075M
Carl Hagelin, 26RFA$2.25M
J.T Miller, 21RFA$1.083M
Source: NHL Numbers

There appears to be some traction behind the idea that Zuccarello could be back next year, as head coach Alain Vigneault publicly lobbied for his retention during a media session that included Andrew Gross of The Record. 

Vigneault likely wouldn't have opened his mouth if there were no intentions for Zuccarello to be re-signed because the bench boss isn't going to throw general manager Glen Sather under the bus.

Zuccarello is arguably the Rangers' most important UFA, and a $20 million deal over four years would be fair to both him and the Rangers.

It would be a colossal mistake for Sather to let him go. Signing him to a new deal should be the Blueshirts' main priority going forward instead of chasing rentals at the NHL trade deadline. Zuccarello is certainly worth $5 million or more a season, but then again so was Stralman.

Unless otherwise noted, stats via Hockey-Reference.com, Own The Puck and The Hockey News.

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