After witnessing Mats Zuccarello’s start to the 2015-16 season, it is hard not to wonder “what if?” in regards to the Rangers playoff run last season.
After Zuccarello suffered a scary injury in the first round of the playoffs vs. the Penguins, the Rangers weren’t able to produce a positive expected goal differential advantage for the remainder of their Conference Final run. This negative differential placed too much emphasis on Henrik Lundqvist and their lack of scoring caught up to them vs. the Lightning.
Zuccarello is off to a great start and is an integral part of the Rangers top line. His role as a playmaking winger has pushed him, Rick Nash and Derick Brassard into the conversation of the elite lines in the NHL.
We can’t ignore Zuccarello’s unsustainable 25% shooting percentage, a percentage that will regress downwards toward his career shooting percentage of 11.5%, but his value to the Rangers is his playmaking skills.
Zuccarello possesses elite speed and it causes havoc for defenders. When he attacks these defenders, they struggle to maintain proper gap control because they must respect his ability to beat them to the outside. This forces defenders to lengthen their gaps and with this, Zuccarello is able to gain control of the offensive blue line with regularity. This provides him with space to operate offensively because he doesn’t operate in straight lines. He provides width and depth to his attacks.
When he gains the offensive zone, he refuses to settle for low percentage opportunities. Zuccarello continually looks for ways to exploit the slot line and attacks it with regularity.
Zuccarello leads the Rangers in slot line passes with 12 and we can see in the graphic above how he improves their expected goal totals through these plays. Zuccarello, with space, creates a difficult problem-solving scenario for the goaltender. He disguises his shot intentions well, which provides either false information for the goaltender or none at all. When he delivers the pass, it forces the goaltender to react and his information gathering becomes compromised. This provides a greater opportunity to score for the recipient of these feeds.
When we factor in his ability to hold onto the puck and layer defenders in front of the goaltender before his release, we can understand why he is so integral to the Rangers top line production.
If we chart Zuccarello’s on-ice shot attempts and then remove the shots he personally attempts or the ones he directly attributes to through his playmaking ability and forcing pre-shot movement, we see how he is driving play over the first 20 games.
At this point, he is on pace for a career-best 86 points. This is likely not sustainable because it is being paced by an unexpected goal scoring surge. A 40-goal pace for a player who averages around 16 is not sustainable, but Zuccarello’s 45-assist pace is.
With Nash showing signs of breaking out of his early-season slump, Zuccarello’s unexpected early season goal production paired with Oscar Lindberg‘s, has allowed the Rangers to not only weather their superstars personal scoring struggles, but maintain their status among the top teams in the league.
For a guy who was an injury question mark entering the season, Zuccarello has been the offensive catalyst behind the Rangers early season surge.