STOCKHOLM -- Mats Zuccarello
can't lie. His exit meeting with the Rangers at the end of last season was not a pleasant experience, to say the least.
Coach John Tortorella and his staff picked apart Zuccarello's game in a way that few before had. A star wherever he had played in Europe, Zuccarello now was hearing that he had huge holes in his game.
Just like that, one of Norway's biggest sporting stars was uncertain about his immediate future in the sport he loved. He was about to enter the final season of his contract with the club and the idea of spending another long winter in the American Hockey League was not an appealing one.
So, Zuccarello had a choice. He could ignore the entreaties of the coaching staff and bank on the world-class skill he's always possessed to hopefully gloss over the deficiencies in his game, or he could accept the pain caused by the critique from the coaching staff and address the symptoms causing the pain.
He chose the latter, taking a long, hard look at his game and what he wanted for his hockey future. Despite the insurance policy of fame and fortune in the form of an offer to play in the Swedish Elite League at any time, Zuccarello decided he wanted to put in the work to be a full-time NHL player.
"I was focused on making this team," Zuccarello told NHL.com. "That was my plan. I knew I could make this team if I just worked on those things that the team thought I should work on. That would give me the best possible chance to make the team.
"There are not a lot of players that get this chance, playing at the top level like this, so you don't want to waste it. If you go home (to play), you will regret it. I was just focused on making the team this year -- nothing else mattered."
So, work he did. He spent time with noted skating instructor Barb Underhill to refine his skating stride. He spent more time in the gym so he could be stronger on the puck. And he studied video to learn ways to be better away from the puck.
It's all paid off, as it appears he has made the Rangers' opening-night roster and could be in the lineup when the Rangers open the regular season Friday night at the Globe Arena against the Los Angeles Kings
in a 2011 Compuware NHL Premiere game (1 p.m. ET, Versus, TSN).
It will be a homecoming of sorts for Zuccarello, who hails from nearby Norway and became a star while playing for MoDo in the SEL.
"Especially playing in Sweden, this almost feels like home," Zuccarello said. "I feel like I have been playing good the last couple of games. I'm just battling for my spot here and hopefully I can be on the ice Friday. I've been working hard all summer to get to this point and maybe play the opening night and have a lot of family and friends in the stands. It'll be pretty special."
If his dreams are fulfilled, it will not be a case of divine intervention -- just plain hard work.
Tortorella is a demanding taskmaster, for sure, but he's also fair. He was not overly impressed with Zuccarello's game last season, put off by the player's defensive liabilities -- which are a grave sin in Tortorella's system. Zuccarello spent a good portion of the season in the minors and saw limited time when he was in the NHL.
However, Tortorella has heaped praise upon Zuccarello in the preseason, often saying Zuccarello has been one of the best players in training camp and the team's intensive preseason schedule of games. He is impressed with the way in which Zuccarello has handled his second chance.
"He has certainly taken to heart the things we have asked him to work on," Tortorella said. "His skating has improved. He's certainly playing much better away from the puck.
"I just think he has grown up. He's very coachable. I think the way he handled himself last year, knowing that he wasn't ready, went down to the minors and played, played some with us, went back down to the minors; I think he has handled himself the right way in trying to become a better player. It really falls on his shoulders in accepting that responsibility and he has done that."
While Tortorella notes improvements have been made in so many areas, it is Zuccarello's play in his own end that has most impressed him. During Wednesday's practice, the coach and player were in the corner having an intense conversation during a drill.
"He was asking about defensive-zone coverage there," said Tortorella, using that episode as an example of what he is talking about in regard to Zuccarello's continuing evolution.
"For a coach to put a player on the ice more often, it's his play away from the puck (that matters)," Tortorella said. "He has improved that; I can see that in some of the (preseason) games he has played. I'm not getting in his way offensively. He's a good offensive player. It's the other part of the game, in a small building, that we wanted him to work at and he has."
The reward for all that hard work in the summer could lie little more than 48 hours away. If it doesn't happen -- if Zuccarello is one of the scratches Friday -- he is ready for that, as well. Last season's trials and tribulations and this summer's soul-searching have combined to prepare him for almost any eventuality on the hockey rink.
"I think everything that happened last year made me a stronger person and a better hockey player," Zuccarello said.
His coach agrees. And while he can't predict what the future holds for Zuccarello, Tortorella believes the sky is the limit after the work ethic the player showed.
"I'm hoping he stays with us and he produces for us," Tortorella said.