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  • Mats Zuccarello's Contract Gets Better With Age

    Tony Abbott

    Oh, yeah, that's not going to age well.


    That was the tenor of the sentiment surrounding the Minnesota Wild signing Mats Zuccarello in 2019. The hockey world was in agreement over this, from the local fanbase rapidly tiring of Paul Fenton's bizarre, buffoonish reign as Wild general manager to the national media and commentariat laughing at Fenton's bizarre, buffoonish reign as Wild general manager.


    Fenton signed Zuccarello to a 5-year, $30 million deal to stabilize a Wild that bled talent with a legitimate Top-6 playmaker. It's just that in doing so, he committed the biggest sin in hockey.


    That sin wasn't valuing what Zuccarello brought to the ice. He spent his career as a beloved leader for the New York Rangers and just came off a 51-point-in-61-game season, including playoffs. It was signing a player above 30 to a long-term deal.


    To know why, Wild fans only need to recall what happened to the likes of Dany Heatley and Thomas Vanek. Offensive players tend to sharply decline in their 30s, and Heatley and Vanek became albatrosses on the team. For every Alex Ovechkin, 10 guys go the way of David Backes, Brent Seabrook, or Sergei Bobrovsky. Signing Zuccarello was spitting in history's face.


    But credit to Zuccarello and the Wild: They actually got away with it.



    Last season, Zuccarello did something that is almost impossible: Have a career year at the age of 34. His 79 points in 70 games last year weren't just a career-high, but it cleared his career-high by 18 points. He scored 1.13 points per game last season, up from his previous career-high (0.83) by almost a third of a point.


    That doesn't happen. Not to old guys, anyway. The only other 34-plus point-per-game player to set a career-high in points per game is... Martin St. Louis.


    Obviously, having Kirill Kaprizov helps, but no one produces forever, and last year was such an outlier for Zuccarello. Even compared to the previous season, when Zuccarello rode shotgun with Dolla Bill Kirill, he only averaged 0.83 points per game. Some regression seemed inevitable.


    Instead, Zuccarello is on track to once again set a career-high in points and points per game. This time, at 35. Zuccarello is riding an 11-game points streak where he's potted eight goals and 19 points. Knowing that, it's little surprise that he's tied for seventh in the NHL for points in the last month, keeping pace with the likes of Ovechkin and Nikita Kucherov.


    But anyone can ride a hot streak. What's mind-blowing about Zuccarello is how consistently productive he's been. He's registered a point in 25 of 31 games, which lands him in the league's Top-20 in scoring (T-18th) this season.


    That kind of production would be incredible if he was 27. But again, he's not! Compare his numbers at ages 33-35 with the rest of the league in the Analytics Era, and you'll find that he's tracking to be one of seven players to average a point-per-game or more in that stretch.


    Joining him are Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin, St. Louis, Patrick Kane, Ovechkin, and Patrice Bergeron. Zuccarello's obviously not a Hall-of-Famer like those other names are, but keeping up with their production in their 30s is still extremely impressive.


    Does Kaprizov have something to do with this? Absolutely, but we can't dismiss Zuccarello's contributions out of hand, either. He's not the first older player in the last 15 seasons to play with an all-world talent. And Zuccarello's hardly been an empty-calorie point-scorer over the life of his deal, either.


    Since the start of his time in Minnesota (including his discouraging first season), Zuccarello is 80th in the NHL among forwards with 8.9 Standings Points Above Replacement. He doesn't have a singularly dominant trait in terms of his underlying numbers but makes it up by being good at everything. He's strong at offense, defense, and penalty differential.


    [caption id=attachment_140783" align="alignnone" width="745]Screen-Shot-2022-12-21-at-1.23.43-AM.png Courtesy of Evolving Hockey[/caption]


    Forget a good contract; that's a home run deal. Over his tenure with the Wild, Zuccarello is scoring 25 goals and 73 points and delivering his team about 3.5 standings points worth of value per 82 games. Of every forward with 100+ games since 2019-20, Zuccarello's 0.90 points per game is 40th in the NHL. He's been as productive as stars like Brayden Point, Blake Wheeler, Bergeron, and Alex DeBrincat.


    The question is: Will this continue? It's easy to look at his 15.9% shooting percentage and think, that's coming down, and it might. But incredibly, that shooting percentage is in-line with every season Zuccarello's been in Minnesota. From his first year to now, his shooting percentage by year has been 15.6, 14.9, 15.1, and 15.9.


    That's pretty absurd, considering he was a career 10.6% shooter in New York. But hey, if you're going to play with Kaprizov (and before him, a still-productive Eric Staal and Jason Zucker), you're getting some open looks at the net.



    While Father Time is undefeated, it's getting increasingly harder to see Zuccarello falling off hard for the remaining 130 games on his contract. For one, Zuccarello doesn't really rely on impressive physical attributes to succeed. He's not living off elite speed or quick-twitch reflexes. He just threads tough passes to Kaprizov and finds space for himself to get his shot off.


    Vision and smarts seem to be in the realm of old man skills. We've seen veterans like Jared Spurgeon, Ryan Suter, and Mikko Koivu stay productive because of those rather than relying on declining physical skills. And if we want to keep hammering the St. Louis comparison (both are short, skilled wingers beloved in New York), St. Louis' brain kept his production afloat, with 52 points in his final season at age-39.


    Zuccarello also has a lot fewer miles on him than you might expect. He entered the league at age 23 in the 2010-11 season. Before that, he was playing in Norway and Sweden's top leagues, where they play 40-50 games a year, rather than the 60-80 annual games Canadian and American players might play going from juniors to the AHL to the NHL.


    Even when he made the NHL, Zuccarello didn't play his 100h game until he was 26 in 2013-14. As a result, he's only got the 60th-most minutes among active forwards since his rookie season. For context, he's 35 and has played 300 fewer NHL minutes than 27-year-old Nathan MacKinnon. Mikael Granlund has 150 more minutes at age-30. That's years of wear-and-tear that aren't on Zuccarello.


    So congratulations, Minnesota. The world doubted you, but the old guy you locked up long-term is giving you the last laugh with legitimate top-line production and underlying numbers. You not only beat the odds, but you sent them to the morgue. It's a terrific contract. Just don't ever sign one like it again.


    All per-game data from Stathead, all other data from Evolving Hockey unless otherwise stated.

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