Jason Zucker played one game with the Pittsburgh Penguins, yet the long pursuit, which concluded on Monday, lifted the Penguins on several levels. From defenseman Kris Letang to head coach Mike Sullivan, the Penguins locker room acknowledged the change. The team which has been rolled by waves of bad news received the vote of confidence from GM Jim Rutherford like a needed pat on the back.
And Sullivan is already eying the versatility Zucker will bring to the Penguins lineup, now and in the future.
“When the time comes when we do get healthy, it just gives us that much more depth and that many more options,” Sullivan said on Thursday after practice. “He’s going to be an important player for us. We’ve really liked what we’ve seen to this point.”
To this point, the Penguins have seen 60 minutes of hockey and one practice.
No, the acquisition of Zucker not only gives the Penguins a legitimate top-six forward in their lineup but the hope which comes with it. Losing top-line LW Jake Guentzel not only removed 40-goals from the Penguins lineup, but it also forced more players such as McCann out of position.
And it gave the locker room a vote of confidence that management also believes in the team (We’ll pause here for Pirates fans to sigh).
“Not to state the obvious, but we’re in an era where we want to win as many Cups as we can,” Kris Letang said. “The management is going to push and do everything they can to give us the best chance for that.”
Like a giant water buffalo in the middle of the desert, the Penguins received the support they most needed.
“When you acquire a player like that, it kind of sends you the message,” Letang said. “He brings so much to the table. He plays on the power play and the PK. He’s got a lot of speed. He plays well on both sides of the puck.”
Before we canonize Zucker, he is a 20-goal scorer, not a 40-goal guy. Of course, he hasn’t played a season with Evgeni Malkin or Sidney Crosby, either. Nor has Zucker been in an aggressively forward system that relies on speed and pressure to create offense.
“I was thinking a little bit (Tuesday) with some of the system things,” Zucker responded to PHN on Thursday night. “If I use my speed and try to create some chances offensively, but create turnovers defensively and get some pressure on their defense, I think it’ll be good.”
There’s something about the left side of the Pittsburgh Penguins locker room and the row of wingers on that side who are their own worst critics. Perhaps scoring his first goal will alleviate Zucker’s critical analysis.
His presence restores the balanced lineup, which Sullivan used well in the first half of the season. Dominik Simon will likely get more time on the top-line, but the trio with him, Crosby, and McCann didn’t work well. In fact, that line provided the worst stretch of statistics for all three.
“(Zucker on the LW) gives us more options. That’s really what it does for us; it gives us one more guy we can put in that situation in that situation,” Sullivan said. “(That) allows us to do other things with (Bryan Rust) or Dom Simon to try to help create the balance that we need or are looking for throughout our lineup.”
Indeed, the Penguins balance was seriously out of whack. For a few weeks, only the Evgeni Malkin line with Rust was consistently creating offense. The third line with Teddy Blueger, Brandon Tanev, and Zach Aston-Reese were consistently in shutdown mode, and the first and fourth lines were, to be kind, on the wrong side of the puck.
Tampa Bay smoked the Penguins on Feb. 6. However, the therapeutic features of the Zucker’s acquisition were notable against powerful Tampa Bay on Tuesday. The Penguins grew stronger throughout the game, and each line was able to compete, after a few tweaks in the first intermission.
“His speed allows (Zucker) to be effective anywhere. He’s got a great shot,” Sidney Crosby said. “Experience goes a long way in those situations, as far as knowing how to play, what your game is, and it helps with the transition.”
Like a spiffy new pair of shoes, the Pittsburgh Penguins expensive purchase has them walking a little taller today than they were last week. The player who came from the land of 10,000 lakes, Zucker has already made ripples throughout the Penguins.