Disappointing return for heart and soul Zuccarello won’t satisfy fans

Following a well deserved 5-2 home win by the Rangers over an unprepared Devils, cult hero Mats Zuccarello exited Madison Square Garden for the last time in his car waving to fans. Unsurprisingly, the man known to all as “Zuuuucccc” was one of three healthy scratches due to being on the block two days before the deadline.

As expected, the popular 31-year old from Norway who gave the Blueshirts his heart and soul, was dealt later in the day. No. It wasn’t a team that was expected such as Calgary or Nashville. Instead, Rangers GM Jeff Gorton agreed to trade Zuccarello to the Dallas Stars in exchange for two conditional picks that for now are a second and third. Let’s delve more into it.

Getting a second round pick for Zucc was highly anticipated based on his season. However, I’m in the same camp as many confused Garden Faithful who can’t understand why Gorton didn’t get a prospect from Dallas with the second round pick that can become a first if the Stars win two rounds. There’s a better chance of hell freezing over.

Even with the additions of Zuccarello and former Devil Ben Lovejoy, the Stars are still going to be hard pressed to squeak into the playoffs. With 65 points and 30 ROW (regulation + overtime wins), they’re still in the first wildcard despite the Avalanche shutting out the Predators to tie them in points. Colorado has 27 ROW and one less game left. So, they’re the second wildcard in a very weak West where virtually a dozen teams are still alive for the final two spots.

The stipulation on the third round conditional pick is that if Zuccarello decides to re-sign in Big D, that would become a first. The whole thing is puzzling. Is that really the best the Rangers could’ve done for a skilled veteran who brings plenty of grit to the table for a contender capable of making a run? Color me unimpressed.

I highly doubt Zuccarello will stay in Dallas. I don’t feel they’re good enough to seriously compete. Tyler Seguin is the only top forward out of Jamie Been and Alexander Radulov to play up to his potential. The Stars have two good defensemen in John Klingberg and promising rookie Miro Heiskanen, who’ll challenge for the Norris in the future. Unless Ben Bishop can stay healthy, they have no chance of doing anything. Bishop has battled injuries most of the season, which sums up his career. A very good goalie who can steal games, it’s all about being right.

Zuccarello can certainly aid a team that isn’t deep offensively. After Seguin, who paces them with 26 goals and 57 points, Radulov is nearly a point-per-game with 47 points in 50 games. Benn has slowed down with a modest 21-20-41 thus far. After that, the drop off is significant. Klingberg (29 points), Esa Lindell (28) and Heiskanen (26) rank fourth through sixth. They’ll hope Zuccarello can find some chemistry with declining vet Jason Spezza. Hopefully, he does well as a Star. Although I gotta admit I cannot picture our beloved Zucc wearing that number 36 in Stars colors.

It’ll take some getting used to. The question is for how long. For as much as he struggled with the groin strain and then the cold reality that he would no longer be a Blueshirt, Zuccarello came clean and then proved why he was so revered by fans. The strong response in mid-January turned his season around. In his last 16 games as a Ranger, he registered seven goals and 15 assists totaling 22 points. That included a dominant nine-game point scoring streak in which he had 15 points (5-10-15). In fact, all 22 points came over a 14-game run between Jan. 12 thru Feb. 17. Even though he didn’t pick up a point over the final two games, the effort was there. So was the trust from coach David Quinn, who heaped high praise on his now former player.

It’s always sad when a fan favorite leaves. Gorton had little choice with the organization committed to a rebuild that began last year with the auctioning off of Ryan McDonagh, J.T. Miller, Rick Nash and Michael Grabner for a combination of prospects and draft picks. The previous summer, former playoff hero Derek Stepan and Antti Raanta were traded to Arizona for Tony DeAngelo and the 2017 seventh overall pick that became Lias Andersson. So, the proverbial writing on the wall really started back then.

As loyal as Zuccarello was to the only NHL team he’d known, he still wanted five years from the Rangers when Gorton tried to negotiate. It’s understandable. He believes he’s got plenty of good hockey left. He was a bargain making $4.5 million on average. That’ll change this July. Much like former captain Ryan Callahan, he’s entitled to that one payday when the weather heats up. That’s why he had to go. Unless he was willing to take less term, there was no realistic chance of keeping him. The same will be echoed of soon to be gone two-way center Kevin Hayes, who’ll likely command between six to seven years at between six to seven million.

What’s so disappointing is that Gorton took the Dallas offer for the two picks. You’re telling me they couldn’t do better? I was under the impression they would go for a prospect and a second round draft pick.

I’m not going to pretend to be a GM or hockey executive here. That’s their job. I don’t know what was offered. The perception was that they couldn’t get a first back for Zuccarello. Unless the Stars have a miracle run in them, that will remain true. Maybe they can sway him into staying. That would be nice. Just don’t expect it.

As much as I would’ve loved for Gorton to add American prospect Jason Robertson, who helped Team USA win a silver medal at the World Junior Championship, he probably wasn’t available for a potential rental in Zucc. That’s the nature of the business. Maybe a few of us got our hopes up for nothing. When it comes to following this team, Ranger fans can be very unrealistic. I just wish I felt differently about the return.

The good news is Hayes should definitely bring back a good prospect and first round pick. I don’t care if it’s the 31st overall. If he helps say a Calgary, Nashville, or Winnipeg win a Stanley Cup, even better. Especially if it means one of those conditions being met, which most of us expect.

You never know. Don’t forget Mark Stone hasn’t been moved yet. He’ll bring back a bigger return to Ottawa than Hayes. We’ll see what happens over the final 40 hours.

I didn’t watch this video tribute until now. I have tears. I will really miss Mats Zuccarello. I think we can all truly say we love ❤️ you Zucc! Best of luck in Dallas. Thank you No. 36!!!!!

About Derek Felix

Derek Felix is sports blogger whose previous experience included separate stints at ESPN as a stat researcher for NHL and WNBA telecasts. The Staten Island native also interned for or hockey historian Stan Fischler and worked behind the scenes for MSG as a production assistant on New Jersey Devil telecasts. An avid New York sports fan who enjoys covering events, writing, concerts, movies and the outdoors, Derek has covered consecutive Staten Island Yankees NY Penn League championships in '05 and '06. He also scored Berkeley Carroll high school basketball games from '06-14 and provided an outlet for the Park Slope school's student athletes. Hitting Back gives them the publicity they deserve. In his free time, he also attends Ranger games and is a loyal St. John's alum with a sports management degree. The Battle Of Hudson administrator and chief editor can be followed below on Twitter and Facebook.
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