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UFA Spotlight: Should the New Jersey Devils Go For Mats Zuccarello?

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With the New Jersey Devils looking to lock up more talent to improve the team, today we take a look at one UFA who could bring value in Mats Zuccarello.

NHL: Stanley Cup Playoffs-Dallas Stars at St. Louis Blues Jeff Curry-USA TODAY Sports

Yesterday saw CJ spotlighting an unrestricted free agent defender, taking an in-depth dive looking at Jake Gardiner. Today, I’m going to do a bit of the same, just for a forward, and for someone who didn’t even make the cut when we compiled our original list. Today, I take a look at Mats Zuccarello, who most recently played for the Dallas Stars after they acquired him at the trade deadline.

Mats Zuccarello is slightly undersized height-wise at 5’8” but he does weigh in at 184 lbs. and mostly plays LW, despite NHL.com having him listed as a center. He was originally undrafted, but started his career with Our Hated Rivals by signing with them in 2010. There was limited success in his first run, as he struggled to adapt to the North American game, and he would return to KHL during the 2012-13 lockout. Upon his return to the NHL, his first full season post-lockout (2013-14) was when his career really started to take off.

I like the idea of picking up a player like Zuccarello because even though he’s a bit older (will turn 32 prior to the start of the 2019-20 season) than the team’s core, he has a bit less tread on his tires than most players his age. Due to spending quite a few seasons overseas in leagues that play fewer games per season than the NHL, he’s only appeared in roughly 743 professional regular season games; there are quite a fewer players who are younger than him who have played roughly 150 more games than he has!

There are certain to be some players who draw more attention in free agency, which is why I think focusing on a player like Zuccarello could be a steal. He’s still a speedy player, and just posted 40 points in 48 games; he had some injury woes this past season, but prior to it, has been a pretty healthy player. He also compares favorably to some of our own players:

Stealing Borrowing from CJ and his A3Z charts here, I decided to see how Mats stacked up against a current Devil, and I settled upon a player who is generally viewed as a top-line winger in Kyle Palmieri. While Zuccarello doesn’t take as many shots per 60 as Palmieri does, he actually does a better job with his contributions and assists per 60. His zone entry statistics are a bit worse (as seen by his entry %) but that can be rectified by sticking him with a better zone entry player such as Kyle. Mats is also much stronger at exiting the zone than Kyle, and we all know we need to see the puck leaving our zone and going in the other direction.

Courtesy of Evolving-Hockey.com

The above comparison also shows Zuccarello to be a superior player to Palmieri in a few ways; he drives the offense forward more than Kyle does and additionally, as we noted above, he helps out the defense a bit more as well. Considering that the Devils have used Plams on the PK before despite his shortcomings would mean that Zucc would be a welcome addition to Jersey’s Team.

It may be worth noting Zuccarello’s age again here, as 32 means he has exited his prime as a forward, and is more than likely to begin trending downward as the next few seasons progress. This may not make him an attractive long-term option to the Devils because an extended contract could see him regress quickly and just give the Devils a financial anchor rather than a contributing player. The encouraging point on this end though is that he hasn’t seen a drastic drop-off of production in his career, and a return to health could see him continue to produce for at least a few more years to come.

Summarizing Thoughts

Pros

  1. Zuccarello could be flying under the radar for most teams, which could make him a prime target for NJ.
  2. He has great speed and is still producing points at the pace of a first-line player.
  3. He would provide another legitimate Top-6 forward talent on a team that can use as much help offensively as possible.
  4. Zone exiting is a strength and the Devils need help getting the puck moving in the right direction.

Cons

  1. He’s turning 32 prior to the start of the season, meaning his age is outside the Devils’ core and he has exited his prime years.
  2. His possession numbers for zone entry aren’t all that great or special.
  3. BONUS PT 2* UFA is an inefficient time to sign players long-term, particularly ones that could be a liability on the tail end of a long contract.

If Zuccarello is willing to come in on a shorter contract (let’s say roughly 4 years) then I would be all for signing him. If he’s looking for a contract to take him all the way to the end of his career, I would think that the buyer needs to beware. While he has played less games than many others at this point in time, Father Time always wins in the end. Again, if it’s a short-term deal, and he’s willing to come to New Jersey (even if it takes a bit of an overpayment) I do it. The Devils need more talent on the ice, and if signing Mats means that a lesser player is sitting in the press box more often than not, then it has to be done.

Your Thoughts

What are your thoughts on adding Zuccarello? Are you a fan of how he stacks up against Palmieri? Would you take him even though he’s a former member of OHR? Do you believe he would fill a team need? Leave any and all comments below and thanks as always for reading!