If ever there was a time for a hockey practice to be welcome and feel somewhat normal, it was Thursday for newest Pittsburgh Penguins player Jason Zucker, two days after he arrived in a whirlwind following his Monday trade from Minnesota.
“It was good just to be out there with the guys, see how they practice. Just trying to handle the puck a little bit,” Zucker said of joining his new teammates Thursday for practice at the UPMC Lemieux Complex. “I don’t know why, but it feels like it’s been a month since I touched the puck.”
From packing – “I think my hockey bag weighed 100 pounds” – to traveling on a game day to arriving at PPG Paints Arena rocking a plum-colored suit to playing alongside Sidney Crosby, Tuesday was what he called a whirlwind.
Zucker will still be adjusting for some time to a new city, new coaches, a different style of play and, of course, playing left wing alongside Penguins center and captain Sidney Crosby. But he expects to be more comfortable Friday when the Montreal Canadiens visit than he was Tuesday when he jumped into a game against the Tampa Bay Lightning.
“Yeah. Absolutely,” he said. “I think it will be a lot better to have a full game day and go through a normal routine.”
Zucker had no points and five shots playing 15:26 Tuesday in the 2-1 overtime loss against Tampa Bay. Both Patric Hornqvist and Dominik Simon spent time on the top line with Crosby and Zucker. Simon manned that spot Thursday in practice.
“They’re both great players,” Zucker said. “Dom’s a guy who seems to play in tighter areas and make the little chip plays and (provide) close support. (Hornqvist) is a guy who’s around the net all the time. He’s a battler.”
Zucker candidly admitted after the game Tuesday he didn’t have a great game and metaphorically left his hands behind. He had 14 goals, 29 points in 45 games for Minnesota.
Crosby expressed understanding Thursday and confidence that Zucker will adjust.
“Just over time,” Crosby said. “It takes games and situations. Video serves a purpose, but until you’re out there and make reads … he’s got so much to digest right now as far as the team system, and just adjusting to a new team I think it’s just easier if you can go out there and play. He’s got a lot of speed and experience. That’s going to help the transition go a little smoother.”
And it is a transition. Zucker has started digesting the differences between the way the Wild plays and what the Penguins want to do.
“I knew they played at a high tempo,” he said of the Penguins. “As the game (Tuesday) went on, I think my third period was, tempo-wise, better than my first and second. A lot of it is just … throughout their system they’re reading plays a lot quicker and trying to get out of the (defensive) zone quicker and using that tempo and that pace, whereas in Minnesota everything was a little bit different, the way we broke out the puck and different plays. It will just be getting used to that.
“It’s a little bit different. But you know what? For me, I think it suits me well. It’s speed-based and pushing the pace and trying to keep that tempo up. I think that works to my favor.”
Zucker likes the dynamic of being a left-handed shot playing with Crosby, who also shots left.
“I think the advantage is that passes lefty to lefty are typically easier to shoot off of, so, hopefully, we can use that to our advantage, using our speed down the left side,” he said.
Zucker got a day to catch his breath Wednesday when the Penguins canceled practice.
“I was on the phone a lot all day, just trying to figure some stuff out, trying to get my family out here this weekend to check out some stuff,” said Zucker, who will be part of a commuter family.
“For this year,” he said. “My oldest daughter is in fourth grade, so she’s going to finish school.
“The kids and my wife — I want nothing more than for them to be here every second of every day, but right now we’ve got to figure that out as far as my daughter being in school and those things. For me, my wife’s a rock star. She’s got it all figured out.”
Zucker hopes to do the same as far as fitting in with the Penguins before too long.