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Zuccarello-Aasen gunning for spot with Rangers

by Dave Lozo /
Mats Zuccarello-Aasen is a bit of mystery to North American hockey fans. The 5-foot-8, 170-pound left wing is probably best known for flashing his speed and ability at the 2010 Olympics as a member of Team Norway, which placed 10th in Vancouver.

The 23-year-old is known as "The Hobbit" for his small stature and quickness, not because he has large, hairy feet and an affinity for potatoes and magical rings. He used his special skill set as a member of Modo in the Swedish Elite League to register 23 goals and 64 points in 55 games last season and come away with MVP honors.

Those accomplishments were impressive enough for the New York Rangers, who signed Zuccarello-Aasen in May. He's far from guaranteed a roster spot, but he will enter training camp with a chance to make the team and give it a much-needed offensive boost.

"Mats is a highly skilled player with excellent hockey sense," Rangers GM Glen Sather said. "He has produced at every level he has played, and we think his offensive abilities, both as a scorer and playmaker, make him a valuable asset to the organization."

Just how good is Zuccarello-Aasen? Florida Panthers goaltending prospect Jacob Markstrom has a pretty good idea.

The 6-foot-3 Markstrom is as tall as he is confident in his abilities, and that combination resulted in the 20-year-old finishing with the best goals-against average (2.01) and save percentage (.927) with Brynas IF in the Swedish league. He broke down what makes Zuccarello-Aasen such a valuable commodity for the Rangers.

"He's good, he's really good," Markstrom said. "It seems like he's a small and tiny guy, but he's actually pretty tough. He's got great hands, he reads the play pretty good. He did a great job with Modo this year. I think he had a hat trick against me."

A hat trick against Markstrom, the top goalie in Sweden last season?

"Yeah," Markstrom said. "He's that good."

Magnus Paajarvi, an Edmonton Oilers prospect who has spent the past three seasons playing for Timra IK in Sweden, has also seen first-hand what Zuccarello-Aasen brings to the table.

"He's an awesome player. He's a guy that can really surprise you on the ice," Paajarvi said. "He's got unbelievable skills offensively and he can find a pass that very few people can. He makes that pass that wows you and he scores those goals that wow you too. He has a sense for goals too, and that's very rare. He really stood out for Modo. He can be even better if he played for a better team."

Modo finished ninth in the 12-team league last season. The Rangers finished ninth in the Eastern Conference, but it's fair to say Zuccarello-Aasen will have more to work with if he makes the team.

However, making the team figures to present a challenge.

When the Rangers signed Zuccarello-Aasen in May, it looked like he'd find himself on the third line when the season began. But the Rangers signed free agent left wing Alexander Frolov in August, creating a logjam at the position that Zuccarello-Aasen will have a hard time penetrating.

Zuccarello-Aasen is looking at the situation as a positive.

"Of course, I'm competing with every player who's there," Zuccarello-Aasen said. "For me, hopefully I can make the team and having him there as a great hockey player will be a great role model and it's best for the team to have the best players there and he's a great player. I'm choosing to see it that way and not in a negative way."

Besides Frolov, the Rangers also have Vinny Prospal, Sean Avery and the newly signed Derek Boogaard and Tim Kennedy penciled in as left wings. Barring an injury, trade or demotion, Zuccarello-Aasen could find himself opening the season with the AHL's Hartford Wolf Pack.

"I'm coming over open-minded," Zuccarello-Aasen said. "I'm going to do my best to make the team. If I'm not good enough, I'm not good enough. Then I have to take a step down a level and work harder and be better. We'll see how it goes."

Zuccarello-Aasen said he received advice from fellow Swedes Markus Naslund and Niklas Sundstrom, who also spent time with the Rangers during their careers. If there was one common message they wanted to pass along to Zuccarello-Aasen, it was to look to shoot more when playing in the NHL.

"I'm a passing guy. I like to pass the puck and create scoring chances," Zuccarello-Aasen said. "Of course I like to score goals too, but I like to pass the puck better. That's what the guys who have been over told me – shoot more. That's something I have to change."

There's no denying the Rangers could use Zuccarello-Aasen's offensive creativity after they struggled to find any consistent scoring from a line that didn't have Marian Gaborik on it. The Rangers' 222 goals last season left them in the bottom third of the League in scoring -- and out of the playoffs for the first time in five seasons.

Whether Zuccarello-Aasen opens the year on Oct. 9 with the Rangers in Buffalo or with the Wolf Pack at home against the Charlotte Checkers, he's entering camp with the belief he can play in the NHL. But he knows there will be an adjustment to playing in a new league on smaller rinks with unfamiliar teammates.

"I'm willing to learn and take my time and get used to the players and hopefully I can make the team and do well," Zuccarello-Aasen said. "That's my goal for the season, to make the team and play as many games as possible."

Follow Dave Lozo on Twitter: @DaveLozo

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