The 2019 offseason is just around the corner for the Dallas Stars, and the name on everyone’s mind is Mats Zuccarello. And after acknowledging all that he did for the Stars in a short period of time, it’s clear that he’s earned a hearty extension.
To start this story, let’s step back into the past for a minute. It’s Feb. 23, 2019 and the Dallas Stars are in a challenging spot.
After dropping a 3-0 loss to the Carolina Hurricanes using a stale and somewhat lifeless effort, the Stars are quickly slipping back into the thick of the Western Conference wild card race. They are 30-26-5 with 65 points in 61 games and have lost four of their past five games.
But there was a common thread in each of those losses that led to the team’s ultimate downfall. While effort and energy had been present in most of the games, the one common pitfall was a lack of offensive production. In the four losses, the Stars scored a combined three goals.
Their offensive numbers were severely lacking and had been for the majority of the regular season. And while the Stars were a defense-first team that focused on playing with structure and focus in the defensive zone and relying on their goaltenders to keep them in games, the need for offense had reached its peak. If Dallas had any chance of returning to the Stanley Cup Playoffs after two consecutive seasons on the outside, they would need an offensive spark.
And so, Dallas Stars GM Jim Nill got to work and came up with a quick solution. Less than 48 hours before the NHL Trade Deadline and minutes after the loss to Carolina, a deal was announced that sent two conditional draft picks to the New York Rangers in exchange for forward Mats Zuccarello.
At first glance, it seemed like a good deal. Instead of hesitating as he did at the 2018 Trade Deadline and paying for it dearly by missing the postseason, Nill went out and made a move in an attempt to get better. He didn’t overspend by any means, though both conditional picks had potential first-round ties to them. Still, the move for a speedy and experienced winger seemed like a good one.
And even though Zuccarello wasn’t known for being a goal scorer (he’s only passed the 16-goal threshold twice in his nine-year NHL career), he was known for helping drive pace and improve offensive attacks.
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But he was only able to show that in a cruelly limited fashion with the Stars during the regular season. After breaking his arm while blocking a shot midway through his debut game with Dallas in Chicago, Zuccarello missed over five weeks of play while recovering from surgery. He also played in the playoff-clinching game against the Philadelphia Flyers before sitting out for the final two games of the regular season to prepare for the playoffs.
In those two appearances, however, he gave a glimpse of just how much he could bring to a lacking Stars offense. He brought speed, tenacity, peskiness, and a strong playmaking ability to the table and helped Dallas right the ship in the offensive zone. He hounded puck carriers, was confident to bring the puck into the offensive zone, and always found ways to create scoring chances using the setup around him. He made his teammates better and added a new weapon to the Dallas arsenal that could skate 17+ minutes per game.
It was evident in his first game in a Stars uniform. In less than two periods of action against the Blackhawks, Zuccarello found a way to notch an assist in the first period and a goal in the second along with a +3 rating before being tagged with the arm injury. But in those two periods, the Dallas Stars looked like an explosive and nearly uncontainable force.
When he returned to the lineup to make his debut at the American Airlines Center against the Philadelphia Flyers, he was quick to get back to producing. Zuccarello notched an assist on the power play early in the game and helped Dallas build a dominant lead in the first period. They ended the night by clinching a spot in the 2019 Stanley Cup Playoffs.
It’s no coincidence that the Stars averaged 5.00 goals per game in the two contests that Zuccarello participated in. He drove play, used a fast and aggressive style, and was able to create chances galore for the Dallas offense and power play. And, perhaps most importantly of all, he singlehandedly helped create a threatening second line for the Dallas Stars after the team spent nearly two seasons as a top-heavy offense with only three prime contributors (Jamie Benn, Tyler Seguin, and Alexander Radulov).
As the playoffs came into focus, Zuccarello didn’t stop. Even though he never skated a game at 100 percent (it was revealed on exit interview day that he would get a handful of injections in his repaired arm before each playoff game to help with tendonitis), he did more than enough to keep the Dallas offense churning.
With Zuccarello in the top six, Stars coach Jim Montgomery had an opportunity to mix and match his top two lines around. Zuccarello’s impact gave Dallas a two-line punch on offense and helped young players like Jason Dickinson and Roope Hintz grow into full-time skaters in the top six. With Zuccarello alongside, both grew in confidence and engagement as they turned in successful playoff stints.
Zuccarello played in each of the Stars’ 13 postseason games and finished the run with four goals and 11 points along with a +2 rating and shooting percentage of 18.2 percent.
And after the Dallas Stars were knocked out of the postseason via a St. Louis Blues goal in double overtime of Game 7, the focus shifted to the summer ahead. And with Zuccarello set to become one of the Stars’ unrestricted free agents, the watch is on to see if Dallas tries to extend him.
At exit interview day, all of the right things were said.
“Yeah, I really like it. It’s a nice city and a really good team and teammates. I just had a really good time hockey-wise. Outside the rink, on the rink, during practices and everything like that, it’s fun. Obviously, I wish I could’ve played more hockey, but injuries are part of the game. Even with the injury, they took me in really well and I became a part of the group quite quick. I had a really good time here.” – Zuccarello on the city of Dallas and his experience with the Stars
“I think he was a good fit,” said Nill on exit interview day. “A great fit in the dressing room. I think he loved it here. Now, we need to sit down with his representatives.”
“At the end of the day, I don’t really care about points,” said Zuccarello on exit interview day. “It’s about wins and we weren’t good enough this year. Hopefully, we’ll see if I get back. There’s a bright future for this team. A lot of good players, good goalie, good leadership, and everything like that. It’s good.”
Even Montgomery took a preemptive poke at the extension talks on exit interview day by saying, “I think Jim [Nill] will do what’s best for the Dallas Stars, and I’ve already told Zuc I’d like to have him back.”
Both sides seem to view the relationship as a positive and beneficial one, and that should help in the negotiation process.
“This is my team now,” Zuccarello pointed out. “I’m the kind of guy that when someone believes you and wants you, I usually like that. We’ll see.”
But at the end of the day, the writing is on the wall: Zuccarello not only made the Dallas Stars a better and more dangerous team, but he added a critical element to an offense that desperately needed it. He drove up possession time, provided a new dynamic to the power play, and helped catalyze a struggling offensive attack. The Stars went from averaging 2.55 goals per game in the regular season (28th in the NHL) to 2.69 in the postseason (8th out of 16). That included 3.00 goals per game in round one against the Nashville Predators, a team that boasts one of the best defenses in the NHL.
Whatever the negotiations may take and however long they may drag out, the Dallas Stars know what they are getting with Zuccarello. Instead of hoping on a free agent in the offseason, they have the security of knowing what no. 36 brings to the table and how he helps in making the players around him better. And when he returns on what should be a fully healthy note, there’s no telling what else he might be able to do for the Dallas scoring attack.
After all, why go for a high-priced gamble when the solution is still sitting in-house?