Can one of the best bargains in the NHL last season, a player who will make three times the salary this season for the Rangers, match his impressive stats?
That's the challenge for diminutive but feisty winger Mats Zuccarello, who, playing primarily with Derick Brassard and Benoit Pouliot in his fourth NHL season, had a breakthrough campaign, leading the team in points with 19 goals and 40 assists in 77 games.
The Norwegian winger is likely to continue to play with Brassard, but Pouliot, who had size and a net-front presence, became a free agent and signed a five-year, $20-million contract with the Edmonton Oilers.
"Bennie was a good player," Zuccarello said, "and he got a good deal in Edmonton. I don't think we're holding a grudge; he's got to think about himself and his family. We'd obviously like to have him here. I wish him luck, but we have a lot of good players and new players."
It's possible coach Alain Vigneault will add power forward Rick Nash to that line.
Vigneault said Saturday that Zuccarello "established himself as a good NHL player. But one year doesn't make a career. I had seen his off-ice test results, and last year he came into camp in the best condition and he improved dramatically. I see him as a real good young player who's figuring it out . . . how he can be successful."
Zuccarello, who was paid $1.15 million last season, was an unrestricted free agent and sought a long-term deal after his breakout season, but agreed to a one-year, $3.5-million pact, the most lucrative of his career, to stay in New York.
"It doesn't matter what kind of deal you have," said Zuccarello, who often hears a chorus of "Zuuuuc" from the crowd at the Garden. "Every season is the same; you want to do the best you can . . . It ended up being the best for both [sides] in this situation. It's nothing I'm thinking about. Obviously, I'm a little bit more comfortable, but at the same time, everything that happened last year is forgotten. We just have to prove ourselves as a team and as individuals."
Like many smaller skilled players, Zuccarello has had to prove himself in a sport in which incoming players often are bigger, faster and stronger than in the past.
Zuccarello starred in the Swedish league in 2009-10, picking up 23 goals and 41 assists in 55 games for MODO. He split the next two seasons between the AHL and NHL from 2009-11. Combined, he was 8-18-26 in 52 games for the Rangers. During the NHL lockout in late 2012, Zuccarello played in Russia, and when the lockout ended, he rejoined the Rangers for 15 games and provided a spark, going 3-5-8 and then 1-6-7 in the playoffs.
What Zuccarello displayed last season was even more determination and consistency.
"If you don't show up every day, you're gonna lose hockey games. It doesn't matter what team you play against," he said Saturday. "It's a shorter summer than most of us are used to; we have to try to be ready to go from the start. The goal is to get to the playoffs first and see what happens after that."
Notes & quotes: At last year's camp, Vigneault dubbed Jesper Fast "Quickie." This year there's Danny "Monte" Kristo. After practice, Vigneault noted that three players "made some real progressions" in their off-ice testing from last season: J.T. Miller, Rick Nash and "Monte." He then asked a team spokesman: "What's Monte's real name?"