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Mats Zuccarello—he of a career-high 26 goals last season—has potted just one goal in his last 21 games. It was an empty netter.
Through his 21-game drought, which dates all the way back to the last time he beat a goalie on November 13th, the slick Norwegian has transitioned from the embodiment of a team that places skill over grit to the frown-face emoji of regression.
Through their first 16 games in which the Rangers were healthy, the team averaged a staggering 4.06 goals per game—a 333 goal pace over an 82-game season. Were they to finish the year at that rate, it would be the best mark since the 1995-96 Penguins scored 362 (4.4 gpg) more than 20 years ago. In the last decade, only the 2009-10 Capitals have scored more than 300 goals; they tallied 318.
Perhaps the most-discussed facet of the Rangers’ scoring (and return more towards the mean) is their shooting percentage (SH%). As a team, their SH% was 13.77, putting them in the company of the league’s elite individual shooters. In the 21 games since, that number is just 9.71%, which falls on the complete opposite end of the spectrum. Some of that can be attributed to injuries, but that’s an abnormal regression, even if it is representative of the team’s inconsistencies as a whole.
For no skater is the dropoff more apparent—or problematic—than Zuccarello. Through the first 16 games of the season, in which he scored six goals on 38 shots (2.34 per game), he was finishing at a pace of 15.8%. That’s just a smidge higher than last season, where he finished at 15.7% after a stunning first-half SH% of 19.3%, before Rick Nash’s injury in February.
Through the last 21 games of this season, Zucc’s shooting percentage has plummeted to just 2.27% on 44 shots. Take out the empty-netter, and it’s a goose egg. At roughly 2.2 shots per game, he’s still, essentially, getting the same number of chances as he was early, but the finishing touch isn’t there.
It can be tempting to say that his shot total will go up and eventually, he’ll start potting more, but, over the three previous seasons, he’s only averaged 1.99 shots per game. The recent 2.2 number remains a jump and makes the lack of scoring even more puzzling. And Zucc, as a pass-first player, isn’t taking low-quality shots that would cause a natural dip in shooting percentage.
In fact, Zucc’s expected goals for (xGF) – which provides a reasonable barometer for shot quality – stands at 24.78 and leads the Rangers’ forward group. Of Rangers forwards with at least 100 shots, he ranks fourth in xGF per 60 minutes, at 2.76. That’s a strong indicator that his scoring touch will improve as, last year, the Rangers top five in xGF all finished top five in goals.
For any player going through a slump, the solution is a big question mark. The good shooters keep shooting, keep going to the net, and he’s just snakebit cliches all apply, and he’ll eventually start scoring again. Putting him on a line with Rick Nash, when he returns, should also help.
Zucc has always been more of a playmaker than a finisher, and his assist totals (14 in the last 21 games) are still decent. Plus, he still gives a good two-way effort, even if he’s not as feisty as he once was (thanks, MSL!). But the consequence of last year’s scoring ability is an expectation for this season. For now, it’s hard to imagine this team escaping its shooting woes and scoring slump without him potting a few, especially until players return from injury.