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Hartnett: Rangers’ Zuccarello Finally Has Chance To Make Good On Potential

'Zucc' Needs To Prove He Can Cut It Over Full Season
Mats Zuccarello (Photo by Phillip MacCallum/Getty Images)

Mats Zuccarello (Photo by Phillip MacCallum/Getty Images)

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‘Rangers Inside And Out’
By Sean Hartnett
» More Columns

The New York Rangers officially announced on Tuesday that the club has agreed terms with winger Mats Zuccarello.

Darren Dreger of TSN first reported that the contract is for one year at $1.15 million. By agreeing to terms, the 25-year-old Norwegian playmaker has avoided an arbitration hearing that was set for July 31.

Whether Zuccarello can put it all together over the course of a full 82-game season is a widely debated topic. Since making his NHL debut on December 23, 2010, Rangers fans have seen small flashes of Zuccarello’s brilliance.

Under previous head coach John Tortorella, Zuccarello split his first two professional seasons between AHL Connecticut and the Rangers. The diminutive 5-foot-7 winger was not ideally suited to Tortorella’s system, which emphasized physical play and defensive awareness — neither of which are Zuccarello’s strengths.

‘THE HOBBIT’ ENJOYED UNEXPECTED PRODUCTION IN NHL RETURN

Zuccarello showed Rangers fans the clearest indication of his staying power when he returned from the KHL at the back end of last season.

He helped spark the Rangers into locking down a playoff seed during the final stretch of the 2012-13 season by contributing three goals, five assists and eight points in 15 games.  Zucarrello was a plus-10 player while on the ice in non-power play and penalty shot situations. He also led the Rangers with three power play assists despite only playing in 15 games.

Zuccarello appeared to be a changed personality, carrying a fresh confidence that carried into the playoffs. He finished only behind Derick Brassard in playoff points for the Blueshirts. While notable teammates were dealing with significant injuries, Zuccarello grabbed hold of responsibility by scoring one goal and recording six assists in 12 playoff games before the Rangers’ elimination to the Boston Bruins during the Eastern Conference semifinals.

NEW SEASON WILL PROVIDE ANSWER ON WHETHER ‘ZUCC’ CAN HANDLE THE DEMANDS OF A FULL NHL SEASON

New head coach Alain Vigneault wishes to unchain the Rangers and tap into the full potential of a player in Zuccarello whose creativity and vision are obvious to the eye. Vigneault will allow his skilled players to enjoy more expression and freedom than seen previously under Tortorella.

It’s up for debate whether Zuccarello can handle the rigors of an 82-game NHL season. While it should be noted that he was able to play 78 combined games in 2012-13 including regular season and playoff games in two leagues, a punishing full season in the NHL is quite different than splitting time between the NHL and the less-physical KHL.

It will be interesting to see whether Zuccarello’s late production toward the end of the 2012-13 season and playoffs was the result of having fresher legs than opponents or a clear signal he’s adapting to life in the NHL.

We’ll discover the answer once the 2013-14 season gets underway.

EXPECT STEPAN TO SIGN CLOSE TO TRAINING CAMP

Now that Zuccarello’s deal is wrapped up, Derek Stepan remains the lone unsigned restricted free agent on the Rangers’ roster.

The Rangers have roughly above $2 million remaining in cap space. That figure includes forwards Arron Asham and Darroll Powe, who each cleared waivers earlier this summer.

A trade should certainly be on the horizon for the Rangers as they’ll be looking to free up in excess of an additional $2 million dollars to satisfy Stepan’s value. That can be done once the Rangers send Powe and Asham to the AHL. New York would stand to gain an additional $2.15 million in cap space. The Blueshirts are also looking to lock down superstar netminder Henrik Lundqvist to a long-term contract.

There are a number of movable players on the Rangers’ roster which include Michael Del Zotto, Brian Boyle and Anton Stralman. The Rangers will be a team to watch closely as training camp draws nearer.

Follow Sean on Twitter @HartnettHockey.

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