You see the chemistry they have on the ice--instinctual, creative, exciting. You also witness their bond and friendship--the easy smiles, silly laughter. So it's not a shock that Derick Brassard is thrilled his Rangers teammate Mats Zuccarello is once again happy and healthy at training camp this year after missing the final two rounds of the team's playoff run last spring with a frightening head injury.
"The passion that he brings here in practice, that fun-loving personality he has, it's just great to have him back," Brassard said following a double-session of on-ice workouts Sunday morning at the MSG Training Center. "He had a bad injury, but he's back, and I think the summer was real important for him to rest up and heal. I think he feels fresh and is excited to get back out there to play hockey."
Zuccarello was injured in Game Five of the Rangers opening round playoff series against the Pittsburgh Penguins last April when a Ryan McDonagh shot caught him flush in the side of his helmeted head. The talented Norwegian winger suffered a brain contusion and lost the ability to speak for four days afterwards. He did not play again, watching his teammates fall in the seventh and deciding game of the 2015 Eastern Conference Final to the Tampa Bay Lightning.
The Rangers missed Zuccarello dearly during the playoffs. His energy, spark, creativity and skill were noticeably absent as was his competitive fire and upbeat personality.
"He's really important for our team," Brassard said of Zuccarello. "We really missed him last year in the playoffs. The way he plays a 200-foot game with passion, and he doesn't take a shift off. We just want to see him healthy now. He's such a big part of our team."
Brassard certainly missed having Zuccarello on his right wing, a position Zuccarello has held down for most of the past three seasons. Last year Brassard thrived while centering Zuccarello and Rick Nash, establishing career highs with 19 goals, a team-high 41 assists and 60 points, second most on the club.Zuccarello followed up a career-best 59-point season in 2013-14 with a 49-point campaign a year ago.
Their chemistry is such that head coach Alain Vigneault has made sure to reunite them immediately here in training camp, with J.T. Miller right now getting the first opportunity to play on their left wing with Nash, for now, skating on a line with Derek Stepan and Chris Kreider.
"It's been three years now we've been playing together, and he's a great playmaker and I know where he is on the ice and what he's thinking all of the time," stated the 27 year-old Brassard. "I like playing with him because he works hard every shift and he competes hard and we're having fun out there."
The fun part is quite evident even as the Rangers work hard in the first two days of training camp. Zuccarello's over-the-top goal celebrations have brought smiles to his teammates and coaches--if not the goalies--and his energy has been infectious already.
As Vigneault said in opening his press conference on Saturday, "It's a great day for the New York Rangers with Zucc back out there!"