Vigneault Expects Rangers Winger Mats Zuccarello To Be Highly-Motivated After Breakout Season

Last season, Rangers winger Mats Zuccarello raised his game to new levels by recording a career-high 59-point season. The pint-sized Norwegian became a household name in the Big Apple by leading the Rangers in points and was tied for a team-leading 40 assists.

His wholehearted play earned him fan-favorite status among the Garden faithful. Nearly every time Zuccarello touched the puck, loud cheers of “Zuuuuuucccccc” echoed around “The World’s Most Famous Arena.”

At season’s end, Rangers fans elected Zuccarello as the 2013-14 recipient of the Steven McDonald Extra Effort Award. The award is annually handed out to the player who fans have voted to have “gone above and beyond the call of duty.”

Rangers head coach Alain Vigneault believes that Zuccarello will be motivated to prove that last season’s surge in production wasn’t a fluke. Under Vigneault, Zuccarello made a huge leap after serving as a part-time role player under previous head coach John Tortorella.

“I expect that he’ll come in this year and want to prove that one year doesn’t make a career,” Vigneault said. “He has to come in here and have to play the way he did last year. He was a skilled, offensive forward that contributed offensively and was dependable defensively. That’s what we’re gonna need from him.”

Teammate and off-ice buddy Carl Hagelin believes Zuccarello’s breakthrough season was due to the Norwegian coming into training camp in excellent shape. Zuccarello was able to use quicker legs and improved strength to win battles for loose pucks.

“He came in stronger and faster than before,” Hagelin said. “He’s always been offensively-talented. It’s just a matter of him working harder last year to get to pucks. Instead of having the puck four times a game, he’d have it 15 times a game. That’s why he looked so good and that’s how he got all those points. He worked harder – that was the bottom line.”

That difference allowed Zuccarello to find the game-to-game consistency he lacked in previous years.

“He’s always doing good things with the puck,” Hagelin said. “He’s been doing that his whole life. That wasn’t just last year. He’s always been doing that. The fact that he had the puck more often, allowed him to show up more on the scoresheet.”

Last season, Zuccarello formed a dominant line with center Derick Brassard and left winger Benoit Pouliot. Now that Pouliot has departed for Edmonton, it’s very possible that 23-year-old power forward Chris Kreider could fill in on the left side. Vigneault paired the trio against the Flyers in Monday’s preseason exhibition.

Brassard is excited for the chance to join up with Zuccarello again on the Rangers’ second line.

“He had a pretty good season,” Brassard. “We’re just looking forward to playing together and making things happen offensively.”

Zuccarello isn’t sure how the combinations will shake out, but he’s confident that his chemistry with Brassard will carry over into the new season.

“You never know,” Zuccarello said. “Every year is different. Hopefully we can try to produce a little bit of what we did last year. I don’t even know if we’re playing together, but if we do – whoever is going to play there is going to do a good job. We have a good team here.”

Rangers certainly have high expectations for Zuccarello. The Norwegian repays that belief by working his socks off in practice. Zuccarello is constantly fine-tuning on his shot during practices, taking every chance possible to test his accuracy against all-world goaltender Henrik Lundqvist.

It’s always fun to watch the duels between Zuccarello and Lundqvist during practice. Zuccarello tends to celebrate enthusiastically whenever he beats the former Vezina Trophy winner – and why shouldn’t he? It took a lot of hard work for Zuccarello to make it with the Rangers. He will continue to strive toward repaying New Yorkers and Vigneault for their faith.

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