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Zuccarello happy with Stars, but extension could be complicated

The scrappy winger 'fit like a glove' for Dallas, which would like to re-sign him - but for how much and how long?

by Mike Heika @MikeHeika / Senior Staff Writer

One of the biggest decisions for the Stars in the offseason is also one of the most complicated.

The Stars acquired winger Mats Zuccarello from the New York Rangers on Feb. 23 for two conditional draft choices. The first condition was that a second-round pick in 2019 would turn into a first-rounder if the Stars made the Western Conference Final. The second condition was that a third-round pick in 2020 would turn into a first rounder if the Stars re-signed Zuccarello.

The Stars still have their first-round pick this season (18th overall), but they have to measure if they want to lose their first-round pick next summer, along with what it will take to get Zuccarello signed to a contract extension before he can explore unrestricted free agency on July 1.

 

[MARK STEPNESKI: Sting of Game 7 loss still lingers, but Stars 'very confident' about future]

 

"I'll sit down with Mats during our (exit) interviews and see where he's at," Stars GM Jim Nill said Thursday. "We haven't really had a chance … it's been kind of a whirlwind for him … but we'll sit down and see what he thought of Dallas.

"I think he was a good fit -- a great fit in the dressing room. I think he loved it here. Now, we need to sit down with his representatives."

Video: Nill confident in direction Stars are heading

Nill added when asked about Zuccarello's performance: "He fit like a glove. He was a big part of our success and we'd like to keep him here."

The process of assimilating Zuccarello to the team was an odd one. He broke his arm in the first game he played with the Stars and then was able to participate in only two regular season games (tallying a goal and two assists). He then played in 13 playoff games while dealing with the injury and had 11 points (four goals and seven assists).

He was one of the team's most noticeable players, and helped make the entire team better at moving the puck, Stars coach Jim Montgomery said.

"I think he's influenced the passing a lot," Montgomery said before Game 7 against the Blues. "It makes players better offensive players. You get open, you expect the puck. And when you expect the puck more, you know what to do with it when it hits your stick. He makes everyone better."

Montgomery said when asked if he lobbied Nill to re-sign Zuccarello: "I think Jim will do what's best for the Dallas Stars, and I've already told Zuc I'd like to have him back."

Video: Zuccarello not approaching offseason any differently

Zuccarello, 31, played the first nine seasons of his NHL career with the Rangers. He is finishing up a four-year contract in which he had a salary cap hit of $4.5 million per season, and he's likely looking for a raise. The questions then become how much and how long might the extension be?

"Honestly, I haven't really thought about it," Zuccarello said when asked what he is looking for in his future contract. "There's a lot of things you have to think about. You want to win, obviously, that's probably the No. 1 thing you look at. But I can't really give you any more than that."

Zuccarello said he enjoyed his time with the Stars and likes the city of Dallas. It's the first time he has lived away from the East Coast, and said he was pleasantly surprised by the experience.

"Dallas? Yeah, yeah, yeah, I really liked it," he said when asked how he felt about the team and the city. "Nice city, a really good team and teammates. I just had a really good time, hockey-wise, outside the rink, practices, it's fun."

Zuccarello had to spend a month rehabbing from his broken arm, but he said his teammates treated him well.

Video: Montgomery thanks Stars' leadership group for work

"Even with the injury, they took me in really well and I became a part of the group quite quick," he said. "It's just a class act from Day 1 when I got here."

Zuccarello earned a lot of respect for fighting through the broken arm and for battling through the pain to help his team in the playoffs.

"It all healed well, but he had a lot of tendon issues, tendinitis, everything that goes with that," Nill said. "Those type of injuries are really two months to get totally healed. He was pushing it. He was getting injected every game. He was never really 100 percent, but he was still very effective."

Zuccarello said he was getting the arm numbed every game and that affected his ability to handle the puck and shoot.

"I took three, four needles every game. It's not ideal, but you've got to do what you've got to do to play in the playoffs," he said. "You lose your strength and your shooting and the feel. I can sense that some games it was worse than others. Those games, you start doubting yourself a little bit. You don't get to feel the puck, and the whole game is really going down.

Video: DAL@STL, Gm7: Zuccarello scores off favorable bounce

"I wish I could be healthy, but everyone plays through injuries in the playoffs. It's not just me. There's no excuse."

Zuccarello finished with 11 points in 13 playoff games, so he was pretty successful, but he said points aren't the main measure of success for him.

"At the end of the day, I don't really care about points. It's about wins and we weren't good enough this year," he said. "Hopefully, we'll see if I get back. There's a bright future for this team, a lot of good players, a good goalie, good leadership. It's good."

And when pushed for the umpteenth time on what he is seeking in a potential contract extension, the scrappy winger did leave a pretty positive statement.

"This is my team now," Zuccarello said. "I'm the kind of guy that I like when someone believes in you and wants you. I usually like that."

 

Spezza 'still driven to play' next season

Jason Spezza's four-year contract extension will expire July 1 and he can become an unrestricted free agent for the first time in his career. Spezza, who will turn 36 on June 13, said he understands he might not be returning to the Stars, but that he wants to continue his NHL career someplace.

"I'm still driven to play and I have lots of passion for the game. My body feels good and I think I can help a team, so I'm looking to keep playing for sure," Spezza said. "I still think I can play, and if you still think you can play, you owe it to yourself to play until they take your skates away."

Video: Spezza still 'driven to play' in NHL next season

Spezza said he will talk to Nill in the next couple of days, but said he also understands if he has to test the market in free agency.

"I've never had a situation where I don't have a contract, so it will be a little bit foreign territory," he said. "You want to have a good fit, you want to be somewhere you're wanted. I think I have lots of attributes that can help a team. Whether it's here or somewhere else, I think I can be of value."

 

Decisions aplenty for front office this summer

In addition to Zuccarello and Spezza, the Stars have unrestricted free agents in Roman Polak, Ben Lovejoy, Marc Methot and Taylor Fedun, as well as restricted free agents in Esa Lindell, Jason Dickinson, Mattias Janmark, Brett Ritchie and Julius Honka.

"We're always trying to get better," Nill said when asked about whether he wants to add outside help. "Is there a piece we want to add? Yes we do. That's why we have to sit down now as an organization and see where we are.

"Free agency comes into play, cap comes into play, so we have to through all of that now."

Video: Polak on Heiskanen, Stars' evolution during season

If the Stars don't re-sign Spezza ($7.5 million) or Methot ($4.9 million), they will open up more salary cap space. But with Tyler Seguin getting a $4 million raise and Lindell possibly getting between $3-4 million more, Dallas has a balancing act with its contracts going forward.

Nill said the balance could come in trusting younger players like Denis Gurianov and Joel L'Esperance.

"It's the key to having success in this league, you have to have young kids coming," Nill said. "That's the balancing act. You need the young guys coming up, because it allows you the flexibility to sign the Seguins and Benns and Radulovs."

This story was not subject to the approval of the National Hockey League or Dallas Stars Hockey Club.

Mike Heika is a Senior Staff Writer for DallasStars.com and has covered the Stars since 1994. Follow him on Twitter @MikeHeika.

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