Trade: Stars land Zuccarello; Rangers get what could be great picks

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The New York Rangers sent Mats Zuccarello to the Dallas Stars in a fascinating trade on Saturday, and the conditions of that deal will mean that Rangers fans will have incentive to cheer Zuccarello on — even beyond simply liking the guy.

(And that shouldn’t be difficult, because Rangers fans really – justifiably – love the undersized winger.)

Conditional draft picks are becoming more and more in vogue heading into the 2019 trade deadline, but this situation is especially interesting.

The Stars confirmed these details, originally reported by TSN’s Bob McKenzie.

Stars receive: Mats Zuccarello.

Rangers’ rather complicated but interesting side: For one thing, the Rangers retain 30-percent of Zuccarello’s salary.

Conditional pick 1: Begins as a 2019 second-round pick.

That 2019 second-rounder gets bumped up to a first-rounder if the Stars win at least two playoff rounds during the 2019 Stanley Cup Playoffs, with Zuccarello playing in at least half of Dallas’ playoff games..

Conditional pick 2: Begins as a 2020 third-round pick.

That 2020 third-rounder turns into a 2020 first-rounder if the Stars re-sign Zuccarello.

So, at worst, the Rangers receive second and third-rounders for Zuccarello, but could end up with one or even two first-rounders depending upon how this works out. Wow.

A bit more on those picks

As of this writing, the Stars are ranked as the West’s first wild-card team. They’re unlikely to catch the Blues for the third Central spot, and face some competition in even staying in the full playoff picture.

But if they maintain their current spot, things get interesting.

The Winnipeg Jets and Nashville Predators came into 2018-19 as the West’s most popular picks (along with the Sharks, probably?) for a deep run, but both teams have been experiencing some struggles here and there. The Stars would still be beating odds if they made a deep enough run to win two playoff rounds, but it’s not impossible, especially if they add even more after landing Zuccarello and Ben Lovejoy.

(Frankly, the Lovejoy trade is … underwhelming.)

There’s a decent-enough chance that the Stars might want to re-sign Zuccarello, too. As you can see from this post, Dallas is in a position to have a lot of cap space to work with in 2019-20, so maybe they’d keep the splendidly talented winger around with an extension?

One factor the Stars’ should weigh heavily in such talks is age, though. The winger is already 31, and will turn 32 on Sept. 1. Maybe the aging curve is a larger worry for bigger, more grindy forwards, but Dallas must at least consider that with Zuccarello.

And, no doubt, the cost going up to a first-rounder would add to the expense of it all. Actually, that pick might be in place to keep the door open for the Rangers to bring back Zuccarello in free agency, for all we know.

Stars add crucial support

Mats Zuccarello isn’t on the same level as Artemi Panarin, but he’s a heck of a playmaker, and probably underrated.

In fact, if you zoom out and look beyond just this season and instead to the last three years, you could make a nice argument that the gap between Zuccarello and Duchene isn’t even that large. (If you feel cheeky, feel free to say “The difference isn’t even Zuccarello-sized.”)

Zuccarello’s generally been a better possession player than his Rangers teammates. While that might be a case where it’s risky to use relative stats – these Rangers teams have been under water basically since the Alain Vigneault era – it’s better to look strong than weak.

Either way, you can’t really deny that he’s a useful scorer. Zuccarello’s generated 61 points once, 59 points twice, and has generally been a safe bet for at least 50 points during a healthy season.

The winger did experience some injury issues in 2018-19, limiting him to 46 games played before the trade. Still, he’s managed a strong pace nonetheless (37 points in just 46 games), and was really tearing up opposing defenses alongside Mika Zibanejad recently, generating an impressive 23 points in his last 20 games.

Zuccarello can give the Stars some supporting cast help, possibly slotting in alongside Jason Spezza on what Dallas would hope to be a stronger second line.

The possibilities are actually more interesting if coach Jim Montgomery experiments a bit. What if Zuccarello can slide onto the Stars’ top line, allowing one of Jamie Benn or Alex Radulov to move around the lineup, potentially allowing Dallas to ice a more balanced attack?

Either way, Zuccarello makes the Stars a more dangerous, diverse team. Refreshingly, the conditions of this trade should make that a much easier pill for Rangers fans to swallow. Really, they shouldn’t hesitate to root for one of their favorites, even if he’s wearing victory green.

James O’Brien is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @cyclelikesedins.