What The Rangers Should Do With Mats Zuccarello

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Very few Rangers over the last quarter of a century have endeared themselves to the Garden Faithful like Mats Zuccarello Aasen or “Zucc” as he is commonly known.

Some eyebrows were raised when former general manager Glen Sather first signed the obscure, diminutive Norwegian to an entry-level contract in the summer of 2010. Zuccarello did stand out for the Norwegian Olympic team in the 2010 Winter Games played in Vancouver. However, standing just 5’7″ and never playing a minute in any North American leagues prior to his signing made many question the purpose of this acquisition. After all, the head coach of the Rangers at that time was the fiery, demanding, and easily combustible John Tortorella.

Tortorella’s chief mantra to his team during his run on Broadway was to block shots and keep on blocking shots and then, block some more shots. Zuccarello’s entire professional hockey playing career was with one European team after another, and the emphasis on shot blocking in Europe is, well, not on the same level of importance as it was during the Tortorella regime. As one would expect, Zuccarello struggled in his early Blueshirt days trying to adhere to the Tortorella way of grinding, masochistic hockey. Zuccarello spent more time traveling on the I-95 corridor between New York and Hartford in 2011 and 2012 than most people would in a lifetime, hyperbolically speaking, of course. As one would also expect, when Alain Vigneault replaced Tortorella behind the Ranger bench after the 2013 playoffs, and installed a puck-possession system that was more conducive to Zuccarello’s skill sets, the talented Rangers forward was finally able to flourish and the “Legend of the Hobbit” was born.

Starting in the 2013-14 season, Zuccarello would score at least 49 points per campaign and he would lead the Rangers in scoring in four of the next five years. Zuccarello’s talent, skill, heart, and passion were omnipresent. His aura became ubiquitous. His favoritism among the Rangers fans that saw him develop from a fringe NHL player into an important piece of a Stanley Cup contender excelled as his legend grew. Zuccarello became a three-time Steven McDonald Extra Effort Award winner. Simply put, Mats Zuccarello has become the heart and soul of the New York Rangers. It is not a coincidence that the Rangers have been winning games recently since Zuccarello regained his mojo and started hitting the score sheet, as well as the opponent, with regularity.

I, and the myriad of talented writers on the ForeverBlueshirts staff, have opined in a multitude of ways about the upcoming trade deadline and the assured sequel to last February’s roster purging. As difficult as it would be to see him donning a jersey that isn’t his familiar white or blue with the diagonal Ranger name across his torso, it is imperative that he gets jettisoned to a contender as the stock piling of young assets continues. It is equally as compulsory that, in the off season, Zuccarello is not only brought back to the Big Apple, but he is also made the next captain of the team that he adores.

Admittedly, it is very rare, in any sport, for a player with an expiring contract to be moved from a rebuilding team to a contender and then said player immediately returns to the team that traded him. I am advocating for this anomaly for the following two reasons:

The Rangers need a captain

Having Marc Staal and a daily assortment of other alternate captains is pure folly. A team cannot be successful unless they have a solid leadership foundation and right now, the Rangers have a Grand Canyon-sized leadership hole in their locker room. No other player currently on the Rangers roster embodies the spirit, passion, and desire that an NHL captain needs like Zuccarello.

Zucc has plenty of good hockey left in him

Zuccarello has publicly voiced his displeasure about the prospect of being traded from the only NHL franchise that he has ever known. A melancholy Zuccarello means a struggling Zuccarello. However, since his heart-to-heart chat with head coach David Quinn, #36 seems to have his head screwed on straight again, and we are seeing the tangible results of the return of confidence and motivation. He loves, and takes pride in, being a Ranger. He loves the city. He loves the fans and the feeling is very much mutual. At the age of 31 and having played fewer than 500 NHL games leads me to believe that there is plenty of quality hockey left in his small but sturdy frame.

The next time you venture out to Madison Square Garden for a Rangers game, take a panoramic gaze around the World’s Most Famous and count how many Zuccarello jerseys you see. If I was a betting man, I would place a wager stating that the only jersey number more prevalent than number 36 is that of Henrik Lundqvist’s number 30.

Ranger royalty like Lundqvist, Mark Messier, and Brian Leetch earned supreme amounts of adulation and adoration from the Garden Faithful mainly because of their sheer hockey greatness.

If there was ever a more perfect recipient for any award, it is Mats Zuccarello and the Steven McDonald Extra Effort Award. The man they call “Zucc” is the epitome of extra effort. Combine his unique and incessant motor with his marvelous skill set and the ingredients are all there to make him the next Ranger captain.