We've all heard the complaints about the Rangers starting their season in Europe again (which it seems they will continue to do for a few seasons to come, what with the Garden renovation project): how it disrupts the schedule, makes it harder for the team to get into a rhythm, and so on. We've heard about how against the whole thing Torts is, and how clear he's made that to Slats. And it's true: the interviews with the team are already talking about what a busy schedule they've had the last few days, and how excited they are to get to Stockholm and take a deep breath. Not what you want to hear out of your club in the fucking preseason.
But I'm not here to talk about those issues. I'm here to talk about the other danger of a European preseason: Mats Zuccarello.
Now, let me be clear before you start labeling me a heightist: I like Zuccarello. He can be very creative with the puck when he's got the room, he's a good setup guy, and he has even shown himself to be a little tough for his size. As with all successful short sportsmen, it's easy to call him "scrappy," but there's also some talent there that can't be ignored.
With that said, let's take a quick look at his main on-ice strengths and weaknesses. What he does well: makes clever passes, sets up plays, works well with lots of room. What he doesn't so well (did I say that correctly?): clears bodies out of his way to make that room. Possibly through no fault of his own (yes, the guy is my height, and yes, that does matter), he struggles at the NHL level, as we saw last season, because he doesn't have the room and time to make those clever plays against bigger, tougher opponents. And when he loses those clever passes, he tends to disappear altogether.
Now, let's take a look at some basic characteristics of European hockey. Do you see where I'm going with this? A European hockey rink, like the ones the Rangers have been playing their preseason on, is 13 feet wider than a North American rink. European teams, as compared to NHL teams, also tend to be smaller, less physical teams. All this adds up to a bunch more room and time on the ice to make those good-looking plays.
Have you put two and two together here yet? It makes four, people. Zuccarello has looked really good (at least from what I've seen). So good, in fact, that he has at this point earned himself the twelfth roster spot (more on that later). Which stands to reason - he's very talented at this. But what happens when we get back home, and we have to play NHL-sized teams on NHL-sized ice? If last season is any indication, he disappears again.
The preseason isn't just used to warm up your veterans for the season: it's also used to figure out who will and won't make your team. You hear all about the travel and schedule issues with a European season-start, but you hear a lot less about the fact that you play totally different hockey there. 26 NHL teams have spent the last 2 weeks playing practice NHL games, on real NHL ice, against each other. Meanwhile, the Rangers, along with Buffalo, LA, and Anaheim, have been practicing European hockey, not NHL hockey. They've been playing it on European ice, and they've been playing it against European teams, not even against each other. That makes them less ready to face the NHL when they come home, and it causes them to put their teams together based on this less helpful data.
Which is why Mats Zuccarello will be the 12th Ranger forward when the season opens at the end of the week. The Rangers made a bunch of roster cuts on Saturday morning (which I was too lazy to blog about at the time, because I was playing Assassin's Creed 2 instead). From their most recent roster of 33 (roster of 35 was listed here, then Deveaux and Thuresson were cut as mentioned here), the Rangers made an additional 8 cuts on Saturday: 5 forwards and 3 defensemen. Those cuts:
Forwards: Kris Newbury, Dale Weise, John Mitchell, Ryan Bourque, Carl Hagelin
Defensemen: Tim Erixon, Dylan McIlrath, Blake Parlett
McIlrath was sent back to his junior team, the rest were reassigned to the Whale. 33 - 8 = 25 players left on the roster. Here's who they are:
Artem Anisimov, Sean Avery, Brian Boyle, Ryan Callahan, Erik Christensen, Brandon Dubinsky, Ruslan Fedotenko, Marian Gaborik, Brandon Prust, Brad Richards, Mike Rupp, Derek Stepan, Wojtek Wolski, Mats Zuccarello
Brendan Bell, Stu Bickel, Michael Del Zotto, Steve Eminger, Dan Girardi, Ryan McDonagh, Mike Sauer, Marc Staal
Martin Biron, Henrik Lundqvist, Scott Stajcer
Now, you may recall that the maximum NHL roster is 23. You see 25 here. However, a special allowance is made for teams who start the season in Europe, that they may carry 1 extra goalie for the start of the season (which is why Stajcer remains on the roster at this point). So, one more cut remains to be made between today's preseason closer, a 2:00 against EV Zug, and Friday's season opener, at 1:00 against the Kings. Torts has made it clear that he intends to start the season with 13 forwards and 8 defensemen (a smart move given the uncertainty surrounding Staal, who remains in the States as of now). It's also recently become clear that Zuccarello's position is cemented, and that the final cut will come down to Avery or Christensen.
Christensen played in yesterday's 4-1 victory over HC Slovan, while Avery was a healthy scratch. According to Kevin DeLury, Christensen himself had a bad game, though (what else is new?). Presumably, Avery will be in this afternoon's lineup and Christensen won't, and then the final decision will be made. Ideally, Avery will play another solid game (as he has all preseason), and then Tortorella will make the right decision and keep Avery on the roster.
This would leave Avery poised to be inserted into the regular lineup in a few weeks, should Mats Zuccarello succumb to the perils of North America.