I can still see Mats Zuccarello standing at center ice waiting to begin his shootout attempt in his first NHL game with Sam Rosen setting the stage.
“In his first NHL game, here he comes, in against Dan Ellis, to keep it alive … slows down … fakes … SCORES!”
A skilled, undrafted Norwegian forward, Zuccarello’s shootout success in the AHL had become a major selling point in New York, where the Rangers desperately needed help in obtaining the extra point. And in his NHL debut, the eventual fan favorite started building his fan base.
It was upsetting to see Zuccarello get traded last season to Dallas and it was beyond weird seeing that familiar smile light up wearing victory green, silver, black and white after assisting on a Tyler Seguin goal in his Stars debut. For as weird as it was seeing Zuccarello play for the Stars last season, it was just as weird seeing him wear a different shade of green in his return to Madison Square Garden on Monday night.
Nearly two years ago, Zuccarello watched as the core of the Rangers continued to be destroyed with Ryan McDonagh and J.T. Miller joining Ryan Callahan, Anton Stralman and Dan Girardi in Tampa Bay and Rick Nash being sent to Boston. Entering the 2018-19 season, Zuccarello’s impending free agency made him a coveted trade asset for the Rangers and the idea of him being separated from the Rangers and his best friend Henrik Lundqvist literally started to ruin his life off the ice and diminish his play on it.
There was still hope the front office and Zuccarello could come to terms on an extension at some point last season, but when the news broke on prior to the trade deadline that he would be a healthy scratch, it became clear Zuccarello had played his last game as a Ranger. There was still a sliver of hope the Rangers could re-sign him in the offseason, but as a soon-to-be 32-year-old who likely wouldn’t be part of the next competitive Rangers team, coupled with the fact the Rangers let him go in the first place, it was always highly unlikely.
It took an incredible amount of poor personnel decisions, bad big-money contracts, horrible trades and nonsensical negotiating tactics for Zuccarello to end up in Dallas and now Minnesota. It should have never ended the way it did for Zuccarello in New York and had the Rangers been able to knock off the Devils in 2011-12 or been able to hold a two-goal lead or win an overtime game against the Kings in 2013-14 or hadn’t lost Game 7 at home to the Lightning in 2014-15 then none of this would matter now. The Rangers would have accomplished their goal, they wouldn’t have wasted Lundqvist’s prime and they would have won in the small timeframe they had to win. Instead, those three seasons are remembered as what could have been rather than what was.
Like Lundqvist and the other staples of this recent Rangers team, Zuccarello deserved better than to watch the best years of this core be wasted by jettisoning out the wrong players, and most egregiously, extending the wrong defensemen. Zuccarello deserved better than to spend the 2017-18 season on a team built as if it could still win and he deserved better than to play his last season for the Rangers on a team secretly hoping it would be bad enough to pick at the top of the draft.
Unlike his Dallas debut when a Rangers blue undershirt could be spotted below his shoulder pads clashing with the Stars’ color scheme, there was no hint of Zuccarello being an ex-Ranger on Monday. That is until he watched a highlight video of his own Rangers career on the big screen as the building gave him an extended standing ovation, eventually leading to him leaving the bench for the ice to salute the crowd. There he was, the fan favorite and former core member, in another uniform, thanking the Garden for thanking him. And there he was, watching the Rangers pick up a comeback win against his Wild, a win he could have and should have been a part of.