There has yet to be an accurate report of how long New York Rangers forward Mats Zuccarello will be out. He could be out seven to ten days or he could be out between three to four weeks. There has yet to be an official ruling from the Rangers themselves, so everyone is in the dark as to the specifics of the situation. There are several things that Zuccarello’s non-displaced fracture will have an influence on. First is how will this injury affect Zuccarello when he returns, but the second and more immediate issue is what will the lines be until he returns? There are several paths the Rangers can take and each has their own risks and rewards. None are ideal because losing your leading scorer is the least desirable scenario. Just ask the New York Islanders how they feel about losing John Tavares for the rest of the season.
Zuccarello has been the offensive spark this season, fueling the team game in and game out with his tenacious play and scoring touch. After several years of being called up and sent down between the Hartford Wolfpack and New York and a brief stint in the KHL, it seems as though Zuccarello has finally worked out a niche in the NHL with the trust of new coach Alain Vigneault. Yet this hand injury may derail the career year that Zuccarello has been having. Hand injuries are notorious for taking a long time to heal and may even nag after the player is cleared to return, so there is no definite way of telling how Zuccarello will come back to play. He has been noticeably gritty this season in addition to handling the puck well, but with his hand affected he may not be able to play at his best. All the Rangers can really do is not rush him back from injury as they have a four-point cushion above the ninth place team in the East.
While other offensive players have to step up to replace the team’s lost production, there is still the pressing issue of who will take Zuccarello’s roster spot. There are several options, but it is worrisome because of the chemistry the team has had this season. Changing the lines entirely is not ideal but could prove necessary to allow scoring balance as Zuccarello’s line has been one of the best for the Rangers. The first option would to have Derek Dorsett put into the lineup on the team’s fourth line and move either Dominic Moore or Brian Boyle up to the third unit. Moore has shown glimpses of offensive talent but does not have support on the checking unit. While he is a natural center, a shift to wing would allow him more freedom to create.
The next option would be to call up a player from the AHL. Two players come to mind: Jesper Fast and JT Miller. Both have been producing well offensively of late and both are wingers, though Miller players center or left wing and Fast plays on the right side. Zuccarello and Benoit Pouliot are both wingers who have played either side this season, so Pouliot could switch sides if Miller is brought up. The smart and safe option would be to allow the seasoned NHL players to take over responsibilities at the top level while allowing the prospects to develop, as neither Miller nor Fast seemed NHL-ready in their previous stints with the club.