The Rangers' Mats Zuccarello skates during the warmup period against the Calgary Flames on March 2, 2018, at Scotiabank Saddledome in Calgary, Canada.

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Hartnett: Is Zuccarello Part Of Rangers’ Plan For Future?

Sean Hartnett
February 01, 2019 - 3:31 pm
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On Feb 1., Mats Zuccarello is still a member of the New York Rangers. He still pulls on a blue, red and white sweater with an alternate captain’s badge on the front and a no. 36 on the back.

The 31-year-old wing has only worn one uniform for the entirety of his nine-year NHL career. Aside from franchise icon Henrik Lundqvist, no Ranger of the current era has eclipsed Zuccarello’s popularity among loyal Garden goers.

In the weeks that pass between now and the Feb. 25 trade deadline, there will be clarification on Zuccarello’s future. He is in the final year of a $4.5 million average annual value contract extension signed in Mar. 2015.

So, what exactly are the chances that Zuccarello remains a Ranger beyond this season? That’s a tough question that prompts a complicated answer.

In both on and off the record dealings with Zuccarello, he has always struck me as a very loyal person. As an avid fan of Manchester United, he understands what it meant for Ryan Giggs, Paul Scholes and Gary Neville to play for one Premier League club for the entirety of their careers.

Zuccarello has repeatedly stated that he only wants to play for the Rangers. I’m sure he looks over at Lundqvist’s dressing room stall with a deep appreciation that the legendary goaltender will likely finish his storied career with one team, one uniform, one crest and one city.

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To start and finish a career with one team is a rarity in any sport. The numbers of Brian Leetch, Andy Bathgate, Ed Giacomin, Harry Howell, Vic Hadfield and Jean Ratelle hang from The Garden rafters – but even these franchise luminaries finished their careers outside of Manhattan.

I’m pretty sure if the Rangers made a fair-market offer, Zuccarello wouldn’t hesitate to commit his long-term future to the organization. But contract negotiations can be fraught and intricate.

The Rangers are well into rebuild mode and Zuccarello will turn 32 in September. Yet, that doesn’t necessarily make Zuccarello an automatic to be shipped out before the trade deadline passes. Head coach David Quinn could view the playmaking Norwegian as an integral part of his leadership group and possibly envision him as the team’s captain going forward.

You look at his age - 31 going on 32 - and you have to remember that every player’s body is different. Some players hit a sharp decline in their early 30’s, while others like Patrick Marleau and Justin Williams remain durable and productive into their late 30’s.

Though Zuccarello possesses a diminutive 5-foot-8 frame, he rarely misses a game. He has skated in at least 77 games per season between his first full season of 2013-14 through last season. Look at his past five seasons – 77, 78, 81, 80 and 80 games played. The only time he’s missed an extended spell of games was during the 2015 playoffs, when he was struck in the head by a shot.

Zuccarello is on pace to finish the current campaign with 68 games played, mostly due to a strained groin. He missed Tuesday’s 1-0 loss to the Philadelphia Flyers because of a foot infection.

On Thursday, he returned following a one-game absence and offered a reminder of his ability to make teammates better. Zuccarello logged a three-assist night to help the Rangers defeat the Devils, 4-3, at Prudential Center.

This is the first regular season where he was bitten by the injury bug, but his production has remained strong. His 0.75 points per game is right in line with his career best of 0.77 set in 2013-14. During that season, the Rangers were on their way to a Stanley Cup Final appearance. This year’s group is the most talent-starved roster that Zuccarello has been a part of, and his production hasn’t taken a dip.

It’s hard to picture Zuccarello wearing anything but the Rangers’ “Original Six” sweater. He just seems to be woven into the fabric of the Rangers – he’s loved by teammates and fans alike.

I remember a particular occasion when he stood up to a reporter who declared the Rangers dead halfway through the 2015-16 season in a column earlier that day. After securing a win that night, Zuccarello waited for the reporter to arrive in the scrum and put a twist on the reporter’s words, quoting the column and stating that the Rangers’ season wasn’t dead yet. The Blueshirts went on to finish the season 46–27–9 and qualified for the playoffs.

He wasn’t out to show up the reporter or anything like that. Zuccarello was just pushing back and standing up for his team – just like he does on the ice.

A dressing room is a mixture of personalities. The thing I’ve always liked most about Zuccarello is his sense of pride. Put him in a corner and he’ll fight his way out. We’ve seen 6-foot-7 behemoths think they can push him around. How does he respond? He’ll get right in their face and give it back twofold.

Zuccarello is a winner in life. He was undrafted and overlooked by teams because of his size. Anyone who doubts him will live to regret ever discounting him. His personality and spirit can be infectious on the ice. Coaches would love to have a cast of players shaped in his image.

Yet for all the positives, timing is an undeniable factor. If the Rangers were to extend Zuccarello for three years, there’s no guarantee that the rebuilding efforts will result in playoff hockey by year three.

There’s also the consideration of the trade market for Zuccarello. The right wing does not possess any form of no-trade protection. If there’s a combination of prospects and early-round draft picks that satisfies general manager Jeff Gorton, it would behoove him to strike a trade that aids the long-term plan.

The weeks that follow will make tense watching for Rangers fans, and I don’t envy the difficulty Gorton faces in gauging the market. We’ll soon find out if Zuccarello is part of the core going forward or if it’s time to cash in.

Follow Sean on Twitter -- @HartnettHockey