While watching the New Jersey Devils last year, it became apparent that they had a desperate need in their top six. With the presumed addition of prospect Jack Hughes via the draft, the top-six need seems to be at the wing. Outside of Taylor Hall, Kyle Palmieri and possibly Jesper Bratt, the Devils do not have any other established forwards at the position. With a massive amount of cap space, general manager Ray Shero may just be able to fill this void via a deeper free agent class. And one forward he could target is right wing Mats Zuccarello.
The 31-year-old was only limited to 48 games due to injury but arguably had one the best seasons of his nine-year career. He tallied a total of 40 points (12 G, 28 A) in 48 games played, which is an almost 70-point pace over 82-games. Also, it’s worth mentioning Zuccarello’s playoff run with the Stars, wher he was tied with superstar Tyler Seguin for the team lead in points. Overall, from a scoring standpoint, it was a wonderful year for Zuccarello.
Last year is certainly not an extreme outlier as Zuccarello has been an extremely productive wing in his career. Each of the past six seasons he’s racked up at least 40 points, and his underlying numbers also confirm his effectiveness. A 3.3 Relative Corsi For % (Rel CF%) indicates while he’s on the ice, his team’s better off than when he’s not. His 30.2 goals above replacement (GAR) over the past three seasons ranks him in the top 30 of the league among forwards. Above is a chart courtesy of Evolving Hockey, which compares the underlying numbers of Kyle Palmieri and Zuccarello. As you can see, Zuccarello has had a stronger impact on offensive expected goals (Off_xG) and offensive shot attempts (Off_CF) than Palmieri.
The worry with Zuccarello is certainly not his play as he would instantly be one of the Devils’ top forwards. The problem, however, is age. On Sept. 1, he will turn 32 years old, which marks where many hockey players are either in decline or about to be. This means if the Devils sign Zuccarello, they must be very careful with the contract they offer.
A contract projection – courtesy of @EvolvingWild – predicts a four-year deal valued at just above $6.2 million. This projection seems a bit high in annual money as $5.5 million annually seems a bit more reasonable. A four-year deal would be an ideal fit as this brings Zuccarello to age 36. Anything more would be worrisome as most players aged 35 and higher are not worth over five-million annually.
As a natural right wing, Zuccarello would complete a top-six of him, Palmieri, Hall, and Bratt which would be a solid top-six wing group for years to come. However, as mentioned above, age is an issue. If Shero is able to work a four or shorter-year deal, Zuccarello should be welcomed by both fans and management. However, anything more should certainly be avoided.