For the right price, Zuccarello could make sense in Buffalo

According to Darren Dreger, the Sabres might be one of the teams willing to consider a five-year contract for the 31-year-old UFA

With just two days remaining before the market opens, several unrestricted free agents have been linked to the Buffalo Sabres. One of the more hotly debated players that is reportedly of interest to Jason Botterill is veteran winger, Mats Zuccarello.

As a guest on WGR550 yesterday morning, Darren Dreger of TSN mentioned that the Sabres have already spoken to the 31-year-old, and even stated that they might be a team that would consider signing him to a five-year deal.

In most cases, the thought of signing a winger in his 30’s to a long-term contract carries significant risk, and this situation is no different. There is no denying that Zuccarello’s presence would help bolster a top-six in need of reinforcements, but committing to him for five years might not be the best idea.

During an injury-shortened 2018-19 season, the Norwegian playmaker was on pace to register the highest point total of his career (40 points in 48 games between the New York Rangers and Dallas Stars, respectively). Shortly after arriving in Dallas at the trade deadline, he sustained an upper-body injury which left him sidelined for about a month. Fortunately, he picked up right where he left off, registering 11 points in 13 playoff games before the Stars were eliminated by the St. Louis Blues in the second round.

It’s a near certainty that Botterill and the gang will pursue scoring reinforcements this summer. The team appears to be set on the back end following yesterday evening’s acquisition of Colin Miller via trade from the Vegas Golden Knights, so it’s expected that the organization will shift their focus toward their lackluster forward group. As one of the bigger names on the open market, there will be competition for Zuccarello’s services.

Let’s take a look at what a player of his caliber would bring to the table, and what type of potential deal would make the most sense for the Sabres.

Last season, his performance was pretty steady, providing modest positive impacts both offensively and defensively. From a consistency standpoint, the 2018-19 campaign did not present any type of performance outlier, and trended pretty steadily with his impact over the three seasons prior.

Leading up to his short stint with Dallas, he spent a vast majority of his time alongside Mika Zibanejad and Chris Kreider in New York. From a Corsi standpoint, he represented a positive impact on both of them. Away from Zuccarello, his most consistent linemates saw a Corsi reduction of about three-percent. That’s not exactly a surprise as all three players put forth strong RAPM numbers (especially Kreider).

In terms of deployment, Zuccarello has been utilized consistently since the 2016-17 season with an OZS rate ranging from 56.98 to 54.38-percent. While he certainly isn’t known for his goal-scoring acumen (only eclipsing the 20-goal mark once in his seven-year career), he is a talented set-up man who could help catalyze the Sabres’ top-six.

One of the more underrated facets of his game is his defensive contribution from the wing. The Rangers’ experienced a 10-percent uptick in excess shots allowed when he was not on the ice last season. The increased concentration of high-danger shots-allowed indicates that he (and his linemates) did a good job of keeping things to the outside.

Despite a metrically sound performance in 2018-19, there are still a few areas of his game that leave something to be desired. One of the biggest lamentations among fans of the blue-and-gold last season was the team’s poor zone-entry ability (as a whole) up front.

Though Zuccarello is a dangerous player in the offensive zone, he won’t provide very much assistance in that regard, as he was one of the more below-average offensive puck-carriers on the Rangers’ roster.

This might explain why over one third of his points last season came on the man-advantage.  All in all, if the Sabres do indeed acquire him next week, they’d be getting a zone-adept presence at both ends of the ice, who isn’t the most effective neutral-zone asset.

This is where his contractual demands come into play. According to Evolving Wild’s contract projection matrix, they expect him to sign a deal in the four-year, $6 million AAV range. If the Sabres were to offer him something similar, he would be on the books past his 35th birthday.

Following the Miller trade, Buffalo has about $15 million in salary cap space remaining to sign their restricted free agents, and acquire new talent this summer. While they could certainly facilitate that type of deal right now, they do run the risk of having another albatross on their hands by the time it expires.

If Dreger is correct, and Botterill is open to signing Zuccarello to a five-year deal, then things go from worrisome, to downright risky. At the end of the day, four years is the absolute maximum that the Sabres should entertain for his services, unless the associated cap hit is significantly lower than what Evolving Wild is anticipating.

If Zuccarello’s camp remains steadfast in their pursuit of a longer-term agreement, then the organization should adjust course and pursue a younger player like Joonas Donskoi (whom they’ve also been linked to) to help fill out their forward ranks.

Carry-In and Zone Pressure Charts courtesy of Charting Hockey

Shot-Rate Heat Maps courtesy of Hockey Viz

RAPM Charts courtesy of Evolving Hockey