I can already hear people slamming at their keyboards because they didn't actually read the article so let's get this out of the way first: No, I don't think Mats Zuccarello is on his way to becoming an Art Ross and Hart Trophy winner. I don't think he's going to be a consistent 40 goal scorer. I don't think he's going to match Martin St. Louis' career to perfection. Is that out of the way now? Can we move on?
Martin St. Louis is the gold standard for undersized wingers and late bloomers. Any time a team picks up a skilled but tiny winger in the later rounds of the NHL draft or via free agency the sentiment that "maybe he can turn into a St. Louis" prevails. Most of the time it's a pipedream.
Mats Zuccarello might just be making his case as one of the few exceptions. Keep reading to see the comparison and how much better Zuccarello might just become.
The early years for Martin St. Louis and Mats Zuccarello were pretty similar. Neither guy was drafted. Both were signed as free agents with the team doing so basically taking a flyer on talent. The Calgary Flames signed St. Louis out of the IHL in 1998 and stuck him in the minors, where he produced at a PPG clip. He then earned a spot on the Flames' roster the next season, only to struggle heavily and produce two points in his 15 games. He was sent back down to the AHL, played well, and earned another call-up the next season with similar results. The team bought out his contract and let him become a free agent.
The Rangers signed Zuccarello out of the Swedish Elite League and started him in the AHL in 2010. After producing close to a PPG statline, he was called up, earning a decent 23 points in 42 games but ultimately not doing enough to keep his roster spot. He was sent back down in April.
The next season he earned a spot on the opening night roster but was sent down soon after. It was more of the same for Zuccarello, producing big numbers at the AHL level but failing to make much of his NHL stints. Like St. Louis, the Rangers ultimately let him become a free agent.
A fresh start for St. Louis proved vital. He signed with the Tampa Bay Lightning and, as a 25-year-old, scored a respectable 18 goals and 40 points in 78 games and his first full NHL season. The next season he did better, earning 16 goals and 35 points in 53 games before injuries ended his campaign.
The Rangers lucked out with Zuccarello in that his "fresh start" meant a vacation in the KHL before coming back to New York. In his short stint at the end of the 2012-2013 season he earned 8 points in 15 games and looked like a much more well-rounded player. He upped the threshold slightly in the playoffs, earning 7 points in 12 games.
Now Zuccarello is in his first full, legitimate NHL season, and he's been arguably the best Rangers forward. Granted, that says as much about the team as it does Zuccarello, but he's been fantastic. Let's compare the 26-year-old to how St. Louis fared at 26. Here are their respective stats extrapolated over a full 82-game season.
Mats Zuccarello: 20 goals, 40 assists, 60 points.
Martin St. Louis: 25 goals, 29 assists, 54 points.
Pretty similar statistics, and let's also note that St. Louis did that with guys such as Lecavalier, Richards, Prospal, and Boyle to work with while Zuccarello has... well what does he have, exactly?
St. Louis exploded the next season, scoring 33 goals and earning 70 points. The season after he scored 38, led the NHL with 94 points, and was an integral part to the Stanley Cup winning Lightning. Ever since he has been a consistent All-Star caliber player. Last season, as a 37 year old, he led the NHL in points. The two highest point totals in St. Louis' career came at 31 and 35. Who knows how much longer he can continue to be a good player.
Now again, I'm not banking on Zuccarello becoming a 35-40 goal scorer who leads the NHL in points. But look at how much better St. Louis got even into his late 20s. Look at how similar Zuccarello's curve has been in comparison to St. Louis'. It begs the question; have we perhaps not even seen the best of Mats Zuccarello yet? The Rangers and its fanbase would be perfectly content with the little guy consistently generating 20 goal, 60 point seasons. Maybe he is capable of even better, though. When looking at St. Louis' career arc, is it really inconceivable that Zuccarello could push himself to 25 goal, 70+ point seasons? It's only a half-season sample size from Zuccarello here, but this isn't exactly a fluke. He's always been a tremendously talented player but hasn't been able to figure it out. Now he has, and just about at the same point in his career that Martin St. Louis did. As great as Mats Zuccarello has been this season, I think the best has yet to come.
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Besides how can thus guy not be guaranteed for superstardom:
Loving the love for "The Norweigan Hobbit". Always thought fans were a bit tough on him early on in his career - so many people were quick to dismiss him likely due to his size. From everything you hear the guy sounds like a class act so it's great to see him doing so well.
Nice write up. I've always been one of his believers so no one ever had to convince me that we have a gem, and I spent many an hour debating the naysayers but he's earned the respect of his biggest critics now, so I don't think too many would have found your comparison to St. Louis outrages even without your opening lines. I saw his heart from day 1 and believed he had the guile and smarts to figure out how to succeed in this league of giants. So far he's proven that but his biggest tests are still ahead of him. The 2nd half will be very telling because now the league knows his name and things are going to get a lot tougher for him. A bit of toughness from his team mates would be a good thing going forward if they want him to stay healthy and continue developing. He may never be as dominant a player as St.L but he possesses skills that at least border on world class IMO. I can see him being a 30-50 man within the next 2 years.
I'm of a very similar mind with respect to Zuccarello. I'm impressed with the way he manages to involve himself and make himself a threat game in and game out. I agree that he will continue to improve as he gets used to the league.
One thing, though, I don't think it's good form to begin the post with an attack on your audience -- i.e. assuming that we are knee-jerking at your "outrageous" claim. Even if we don't take your accusation seriously, it's antagonistic and in no way makes the post either better or more "blog-casual".
That said, I share your hopeful enthusiasm about Zuccs.
Nice write-up, Adam! Interesting to look at them side by side like that. In any case, I'm glad Zucc is working so hard. I'm rooting for his continued success.
Whatever he is or turns out to be, he has certainly earned a multi-year contract. Get him locked now.
Thanks Adam - great article! I have said it all along and it was noticeable just before his wrist injury and especially with his return from the KHL Zucc is growing into a solid top 6 NHL player! He seems to be an awesome guy and is clearly well liked by teammates, the press, and fans! I hope that Ritchie can convince him to start working out with MSL in the off season = hobbit beast! Think about how many dishes and setups have been wasted so far because his linemates can't bury the puck! I love that he's shooting more and still being a factor all over the ice! Zucc was the 1st and only regulation Rangers jersey I have and I wear it proudly and probably with a bit more strut now than in the past couple of years! Ranger for life - LGR!!!
MZA - FTW!!!
I don't think its that much of a stretch of a comparison at all. The way Zucc plays and passes, how much fun would it be to see him play with a better team? And he's the only reason to watch this team right now. Could you imagine them without him?
Zucc''s always going to be a puck smart player.The dude has amazing talent and ability to see the ice.
great article. he certainly has the heart to do it but will he get any help to achieve the same #'s. most of the others seem to play only when the urge strikes them, ( not counting krieder, mcd and (cally, when able).
@Herman_NYRBlog Great article.Let's hope he at least gets near to St Louis' achievements. MZ is about the only Ranger I'd have on my jersey.
I have believed in this guy since before day one - even bought his jersey t shirt as soon as it came out. MZA FTW
Rick Nash is following in the career path of Eric Lindros... and Brad Richards in the career path of Scott Gomez... that is the real problem.
@Herman_NYRBlog great column. I remember st. Louis signed by Tampa as a FA. Can't help but draw comparison. Like Zucc a lot
Thought about this comparison the other day while watching the game. Saw St. Louis when he was at UVM. They really look eerily similar on the ice and have a similar napoleonic-complex-like edge to their game. They both play fearless despite their stature.
@Herman_NYRBlog zucc is the type of player that I can see being a captain in the future
@BrunSame Appreciate it. He definitely could have even more points to his name with more competent teammates.
@SmellyKisioHis skill set is extraordinary but doesn't match up with StL, but his guile and cleverness might make up for that
@JMK8363You know, you and me both and I had many a good debate here last season and early this one. What isn't converted is quickly forgotten and how many beautiful tape to tape passes from impossible angles with giants draped all over him went unburied. many but I kept hearing "too small". disappears in tough games etc, His passing skill is so extraordinary that it fooled his team mates because they had never seen passing skills like that before but he's created scoring chances virtually in each and every game he's played. . Now they know him and are ready for the impossible feed but he needs finishers around him.
@JMK8363 why would u want him more around that malcontent richie? So he can lose all speed, fight and desire to play hockey while at the same time developing his t shirt line and/or wine cellar?
well Bradley does have a conn smythe and a cup so thats a bit much but he certainly is stinking up the room these days. I like the lindros Nick Rash comparison
@cwgatti @Herman_NYRBlog Zuc deserves all the accolades... he is a great sniper and a masterful shoot out artist.... what a killer.... just the type of personality our bland team needs.... Shame Richards and Nash have so underdelivered this year...
@GiveGartneraCup I thought so too.... but really had this impression after las night against the Penguins... He was outstanding.... just a huge impact player every time he was on the ice... I hope he becomes even BETTER than St. Louis... who is great.
@iconicrich @Herman_NYRBlog What a ball of energy and skill.... he is a feisty little bastard too.... I love all aspects of his game!!
Remember last season when after every turnover he would "empty" his glove of "ice?" That always made us laugh. Like ice was the culprit