This is the Jason Zucker the Pittsburgh Penguins were looking to add to their personnel mix a little more than three years ago.
The guy whose passion and perspiration seem to have no limits. Who can score goals on a fairly regular basis. Who forechecks with the ferocity of a rabid badger and has no qualms about launching himself into opponents.
The one who can be counted on to have an impact, literal and otherwise, in almost every game.
Oh, it’s never been an issue of attitude or intangibles — Zucker’s style always has been as relentless and fearless here as it was when he played for Minnesota — but rather, of his ability to stay healthy. Or, more to the point, his inability to do so.
Zucker is not a particularly big man — he’s listed as being 5 foot 11, 192 pounds — but that reality seems to have eluded him during his 11-plus pro seasons; he attacks the game like a guy who is four inches taller and 20 pounds heavier.
Just ask Vancouver forward Conor Garland, who Zucker nearly knocked into oblivion — or, at least, onto Centre Avenue — with a devastating shoulder check at PPG Paints Arena last Tuesday. That one should have registered on seismographs across North America.
Zucker’s physicality and solid offensive production (10 goals and 16 assists in 38 games) make him a nice fit on this team and, since he won’t turn 31 until Monday, he could effectively fill a top-six niche here for at least several more seasons.
That has to be particularly appealing to management, considering that, wisely or otherwise, it made an all-in commitment to contending for another Stanley Cup over the next few years when it re-signed Evgeni Malkin, Kris Letang, Bryan Rust and Rickard Rakell last summer.
Now, GM Ron Hextall is facing a similar decision with Zucker, who is scheduled to be an unrestricted free agent after this season.
Zucker’s current deal, signed with the Wild, carries a salary-cap hit of $5.5 million, and it’s not unreasonable to believe that he will get a raise if he goes on the open market.
Precisely how much cap space Hextall would be able to commit to Zucker will be influenced by other personnel moves and decisions that have yet to be made, but if Zucker expresses a genuine interest in staying here, the parties probably could bargain their way to common ground.
Although a significant segment of the fan base lobbied for Zucker to be traded during the past couple of years, sentiment among the public and press now seems to have swung in favor of keeping him.
Given the way Zucker has performed so far in 2022-23. that’s completely understandable. Frankly, it’s hard to imagine a scenario under which the Pittsburgh Penguins would be better this season without him on the payroll.
Considering all that Zucker does when he’s in the lineup, making a serious effort to keep him around seems perfectly logical. Especially when he seems to be so well-liked by his teammates and such a positive force in the locker room.
It is, however, not quite that simple.
When pondering the merits of trying to re-sign Zucker, there are two key words that should not be ignored: Caveat Emptor. (No, that isn’t some European defenseman Nashville drafted in the second round a few years ago.)
Of course, there’s an element of risk in making a commitment to any athlete in a contact sport. Ligaments tear. Shoulders dislocate. Brains get concussed.
There’s a physical toll paid by those who provide violent entertainment.
And guys like Zucker who play bigger than their vital statistics suggest they should often pay the highest price.
Zucker has demonstrated this season, when he has dressed for 38 of the Pittsburgh Penguins’ first 42 games, how valuable he can be.
That’s after two seasons during which simply sticking in the lineup was a big challenge for him.
Zucker missed 59 of 138 games in the two seasons before this one — 18 of 56 in 2020-21 and 41 of 82 in 2021-22 — and his injuries, like a core-muscle issue that had to be surgically corrected, generally reflected his style of play.
Which means that what makes him such an important member of this team is what could make keeping him here for several more seasons such a gamble.
Warning signs, like those rooted in Zucker’s injury history, carry no guarantees, but ignoring them can be perilous.
Witness the Penguins’ decision to give Jeff Carter a two-year contract last Jan. 26, even though he was a few weeks past his 37th birthday.
Carter had looked experienced, not old, after arriving from Los Angeles, but his productivity has shriveled since he got his new deal — he had 12 goals and 14 assists in 36 games last season before re-signing, but only 14 goals and 17 assists in 79 games since — and it’s conceivable that Hextall will try to replace him as the Pittsburgh Penguins’ No. 3 center.
Carter’s case shows what can happen when a determination is made that risk factors are outweighed by other considerations.
Which is why figuring out whether to aggressively pursue a new deal with Zucker will be one of the many difficult personnel issues confronting Hextall in coming weeks and months.