Just 24 hours after the Pittsburgh Penguins acquired left-wing, Jason Zucker, the forward made his Penguins debut against one of the best teams in the Eastern Conference, the Tampa Bay Lightning. The result was not what the Penguins wanted as they earned an overtime point in a 2-1 loss to Tampa Bay, but Zucker received positive reviews.
As if the whirlwind 24 hours wasn’t enough, he was plopped on a line with some guy named Sidney Crosby in an attempt to stabilize the Penguins lineup which has fumbled since it lost Jake Guentzel on Dec. 30. So, without much of an education on the Penguins system and most of the day gathering some belongings and riding an airplane, Zucker was present Tuesday night.
He didn’t give himself high marks for his first performance, but he was being modest.
“I didn’t play very well tonight, my hands were terrible,” Zucker said. “I mishandled pretty much every puck I touched but I just tried to skate and create some opportunities.”
Jason Zucker did that. He tied with Jared McCann with a team-high five shots on goal. He dished a couple of hits, was on the forecheck as permitted and even won two of three faceoffs.
It wasn’t a bad outing at all for the 5-foot-11, 183-pound winger who spent the last eight-plus seasons with the Minnesota Wild, who have never had an uptempo, aggressive style.
“I’m sure he had a lot of emotions coming into the game tonight, but I thought he had a good first game,” head coach Mike Sullivan said. “His speed is evident, (as is) his ability to shoot the puck. I think with more familiarity, he’ll only get better.”
Despite a year or so on the NHL trade block in Minnesota, Zucker admitted to a surreal moment before the game, too.
“It was very weird. I was looking down at my socks and it was very bizarre,” Zucker admitted. “You know what, it was awesome. This is such an amazing franchise.”
Former Penguins center and current front office member Matt Cullen, who played with Zucker in 2017-18 may have dropped a few good words for the Penguins, too.
The Penguins and Minnesota systems are not similar. Actually, they’re far, far apart. Zucker has been constrained and his speed held in check by systems hockey. That won’t be the case in Pittsburgh, where the Penguins pride themselves on aggressive, speedy play.
“(The trade) was huge. He was one of the guys out there and our management made a big push to get him,” Penguins alternate captain Kris Letang said. “He’s a really good player. To have him on our side will be huge.”
Speedster Bryan Rust was also pleased with the Penguins acquisition and Zucker’s style of play.
“He’s definitely a guy who can help out this team a lot. Just the way he plays, how fast he is, (and) how good he is at making plays,” Rust said. “Playing at both ends of the rink. It exemplifies how we play and I think he’s going to fit in nicely.”
Sullivan and Zucker think the Penguins style will benefit the newbie as he gets his feet wet with the Penguins system.
“I think it was great. I think I was thinking (Tuesday) with some of the system things,” Zucker said. “But, overall if I use my speed and skate and try to create some chances offensively but create some turnovers defensively, get some pressure on their defense, I think it will be good.”
Zucker had 14 goals and 15 assists in 45 games with Minnesota. He didn’t notch a point in the 2-1 OT loss, but not many Penguins did. The Penguins found their guy and paid handsomely for him. It wasn’t the Penguins best effort of the season, but for the first time in weeks they also got stronger as the game wore on and didn’t look outclassed as they did last Thursday.
You can debate if Penguins GM Jim Rutherford won the trade with his former protege, Minnesota GM Bill Guerin, but there is little debate Jason Zucker is a good fit for the Penguins.