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Mats Zuccarello is key to Wild’s success rest of season

The Lizard is undeniably great.

2022 Discover NHL Winter Classic - St Louis Blues v Minnesota Wild Photo by David Berding/Getty Images

Mats Zuccarello’s NHL life has been somewhat of a whirlwind since being traded from the New York Rangers to the Dallas Stars for a 2019 conditional second-round pick and a 2020 conditional third-round pick. He played in the game against the Chicago Blackhawks that same day, scored his first goal as a Star, but was unfortunately injured and missed time.

In the end, he played two regular-season games in Dallas and scored three points. He played 13 games in the Stars’ second-round exit to the St. Louis Blues in the playoffs and scored 11 points.

As much production as he had in the postseason, it felt like Zuccarello was set on finding another place to play hockey. Spoiler alert: he did. The Minnesota Wild signed him to a five-year, $30 million contract worth $6 million average annual value in free agency.

Now, Zuccarello has become a staple of the Wild’s offense, becoming part of a dynamic duo with young Russian superstar Kirill Kaprizov. He has proven to be vital to the team’s winning ways. If the Wild want to continue to prove that they’re a legit threat in the NHL landscape, Zuccarello’s production will be a point of focus.

Zuccarello has only gotten better

The Wild has become infamous around the NHL for being a mediocre team. They get bounced in the first round or don’t make it, and we move on. It’s what they were before Zuccarello came to town, and it’s what they have been since he came to town. In his first season with the team (2019-20), they posted a 35-27-7 record and sat sixth in the Central. However, they squeezed their way in due to an expanded playoff format. Unfortunately, they lost in the play-in round 3-1 to the Vancouver Canucks. Zuccarello scored 37 points in 65 games that season, including 15 goals.

The following season—the shortened 2020-21 season—Zuccarello played 42 games for a Wild team that placed third in the Honda West Division. He almost hit his point total from the season prior with 35 points in 42 games. The addition of Kaprizov boosted his point totals and his confidence despite missing 14 games.

Finally, we come to the current season—2021-22. Zuccarello has been one of the facilitators in the Wild’s offense, and when he has been put on a line with Kaprizov, things have clicked tremendously. They have been a terrific duo, with Ryan Hartman as the other member of their line. He is also having a career season, which I wrote about here.

Zuccarello is over a point per game, and if he were not to miss another game this season, he would be on pace for a career-high 89 points. That number is far and away better than his current career-high of 61. Whether or not Zuccarello likely keeps up this pace is still up for debate, but even if he doesn’t, there’s no arguing that he has been one of the keys to the Wild’s somewhat out-of-the-blue success this season. Also, he will be if they are to make it anywhere in the playoffs.

His point total is extremely impressive. It’s not team-leading because Kaprizov is an incredible offensive presence and scores at will. However, being second to him isn’t exactly an insult. Zuccarello was on a 10-game point streak before it got cut off against the New York Islanders. But, that’s not all. He was also one of only two players in the NHL during the 2021-22 season to put up multiple points in six straight games. Who was the other player? Connor McDavid.

These numbers are among players with a minimum of 300 minutes played.

Zuccarello is second on the team in points with a margin of seven to his linemate in third, Hartman, who has 33 points in 40 games. He also sits second in points per 60 minutes at 3.85 overall and third in points per 60 minutes at even strength. He ranks 14th in the entire NHL in points per 60 minutes ahead of players such as Auston Matthews, Artemi Panarin, Steven Stamkos, Alex Ovechkin, and more.

To go even deeper, Zuccarello is third on the team in goals above replacement (GAR) and first in expected goals above replacement (xGAR) by a considerable margin.

So, not only do the box score numbers suggest that he has been outstanding but so do the analytics. His production isn’t a mirage, which is what plenty of fans and others on the outside looking in may be worried about.

For those of you that are curious, here is his regularized adjusted plus-minus (RAPM) chart:

Mats Zuccarello RAPM Charts (34 Games)
Evolving-Hockey

Zuccarello coming into form at the age of 34 is not only a testament to how much better Kaprizov makes him, but how much better he makes Kaprizov as well. They both enjoy playing together, and the results are coming because of it. If the Wild want to go far in the playoffs and even rank among the best teams in the NHL during the regular season, Zuccarello will be a catalyst. Kaprizov can succeed without him because he’s a generally skilled player, but with Zuccarello, they are another breed of an offensive threat. The Norweigan forward will be a huge reason why the Wild will make an impact on the rest of the team’s season.