As of this past Monday, NHL teams have been given permission to speak with players who are set to become unrestricted free agents on July 1st. While, we all know the big plan for Joe Sakic and the Avs is to throw a ton of money at Artemi Panarin. The 27-year-old winger is the big fish on the market and would provide a huge boost to whichever team wins his services. Panarin has spent most of the week in Florida (the Panthers are still the front runners) with reports that he is set to meet with the New York Rangers before the weekend. The Avalanche have spoken with his agent, but the idea of Panarin in burgundy and blue is still very much a long shot. The Avalanche are going to need a backup plan - or two.
It’s starting to sound like Mats Zuccarello is Plan B.
Zuccarello was traded from the Ranger to Dallas at last year’s deadline. Despite missing the remainder of the regular season after suffering a broken arm during his debut with the Stars, Zuccarello was huge in the playoffs putting up 11 points in 13 games. Dallas General Manager Jim Nill had been hoping to re-sign the veteran winger, but all indications are that Zuccarello wants to test the free agent market.
The Avalanche are interested
It’s no secret that Joe Sakic’s biggest task this summer is finding a few guys who can provide secondary scoring behind the All Star trio of Nathan MacKinnon, Gabriel Landeskog and Mikko Rantanen. Whether it be huge money on Panarin or bringing in a couple of lesser offensive threats, the Avalanche need to build a legitimate second line. That explains the interest in Zuccarello.
After a career high 26 goals during the 2015-16 season, Zuccarello has hovered between 50-60 points a season. Even the low end of that range would have made Zuccarello the fourth highest scoring forward on the Avalanche last season.
How does he fit?
Zuccarello is a small but speedy right winger with a left-handed shot. Sound familiar?
Is a great passer and very creative with the puck on his stick. He drives possession for his line and is a very responsible defensive winger that can fill on a second PK unit. He uses a stick that’s longer most his size, it gives him a reach advantage at both ends of the ice than long stick to give him a reach advantage. He’s a very smart player and by all accounts is one of the most popular players in the dressing room.
COACHES: This is a great clip to teach body positioning. Watch Zuccarello as he receives the rim behind the net. He gets to his ice first by creating contact with the defender, putting him off balance. With that he's able to win the puck & make a great play for the goal! pic.twitter.com/GJZYs3SF18— Topher Scott (@TopherScott_) February 7, 2019
Would he choose the Avs?
At the end of the day, the structure of the contract is what matters most to the majority of NHL free agents. Zuccarello is coming off of a four year deal that carried a $4.5m cap hit. He’s projected for a modest pay raise so would likely be looking for something north of $5m per season. That’s something the Avalanche could easily stomach - as long as the term is right.
At 31-years-old, this is likely the last time Zuccarello is going to be able to sign for a contract worth significant money. Three years at $16.5m ($5.5m AAV) might be enough to get it done. It sounds like he really wants to push for an extra year, in which case the Avs might have concerns. A contract like this fits in very easily to the Avs’ cap structure and by the time the team needs to spend big on a MacKinnon extension, Zuccarello would be off the books.
Outside of money, there is one additional factor that could be playing in Colorado’s favor. Thanks to Joe and some guy named Foppa, Zuccarello grew up an Avalanche fan.
“In those days, the Avalanche were incredible. I fell in love with the wristshot of Peter Forsberg, the skating of Joe Sakic. I knew I needed to see more. Unfortunately, all I had was my VHS tape. So I just kept rewinding it and rewinding it.”
In his amazing article for The Players Tribune, Zuccarello wrote about how his introduction to hockey was a VHS tape of the 2001 Colorado Avalanche.
Maybe it’s not enough and maybe another team is willing to blow Zuccarello away with a huge monetary offer. But all things being equal, it’s easy to see the veteran Norwegian choosing to continue his career in Denver.
He grew up wanting to be like Peter Forsberg. This would be his chance.