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Molinari: What Should Penguins Do With Zucker?

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Pittsburgh Penguins Jason Zucker, NHL trade

A few months ago, it all seemed quite simple — and perfectly logical — for the Pittsburgh Penguins.

Jason Zucker was entering the final year of his contract — the one that carries a $5.5 million salary-cap hit — and general manager Ron Hextall looked to have precious little reason to offer him another one.

Zucker, after all, had been slotted into a top-six role when he was acquired from Minnesota Feb. 10, 2020, but had just 23 goals and 24 assists in 94 games through his first two-plus seasons with the Penguins.

Even more troubling was that, after dressing for all 15 games for which he was here before the pandemic aborted the 2019-20 season, injuries forced Zucker to miss 18 of 56 games in 2020-21 and 41 of 82 last season.

Failing to meet offensive expectations is bad enough; fairly or otherwise, a player having to sit out so many games because of physical issues, like Zucker’s core-muscle problem that had to be surgically repaired, might be even more troubling for a team’s decision-makers.

For those reasons, when this season began, Zucker appeared to be a good candidate to move on, whether it was because another club was interested in adding him, or because the Penguins simply would opt against trying to re-sign him when his contract expires next summer.

It was nothing personal. Zucker’s commitment and work ethic never have been questioned, and likely are part of the reason he appears to be so well-liked and respected by his teammates and coaches.

But pro hockey is a bottom-line business, and the Penguins weren’t getting much of a return on the investment they made to acquire Zucker from Minnesota — a first-round draft choice, defense prospect Calen Addison and forward Alex Galchenyuk — or on the salary they were paying him.

And then the first quarter of the 2022-23 season happened. Suddenly, nothing about Zucker’s future is as obvious as it seemed in early autumn.

Yeah, he’s missed two of the Pittsburgh Penguins’ first 19 games, but he also has thrived alongside Evgeni Malkin on the No. 2 line.

Although Zucker wasn’t much of a factor during their 5-3 victory in Chicago Sunday — he was credited with just one shot, and was on the ice for only one goal, which was scored by Blackhawks forward Philipp Kurashev — he has been visible and productive far more often than not.

He has five goals and 10 assists in 17 games, which puts him behind only Sidney Crosby, Jake Guentzel and Malkin in the team scoring race, and his speed and relentlessness make him an excellent forechecker.

And while his fearless style surely can up the risk of lost-time injuries for a guy who is 5 foot 11, 192 pounds, Zucker is just 30 years old, which suggests he could be in his prime for several more years.

Now, 19 games is an extremely small sample size — much can, and likely will, change as this season plays out — but Zucker’s strong start surely could be vexing for Hextall as he tries to determine how to approach Zucker’s long-term future.

Treat him like a guy who can’t be counted on because injuries will keep him out of the lineup so often, or like one who can reasonably be expected to generate roughly a point per game for quite a while?

And, of course, there are other things to consider, most notably the impact retaining Zucker would have on the Pittsburgh Penguins’ salary-cap situation.

He is one of six players currently on their major-league roster scheduled to qualify for unrestricted free agency in 2023 — the others are Tristan Jarry, Teddy Blueger, Danton Heinen, Josh Archibald and Brian Dumoulin — and there’s reason to believe Hextall will try to retain the majority of them.

The details of NHL’s salary-cap range for 2023-24 could have a profound impact on whether he’s able to do so.

The Penguins are believed to have about $63.5 million committed to players now on their roster. and league officials have projected a minimum increase of $4 million in the cap ceiling if the players’ escrow debt to the league is paid off this season. If it’s not, the significant bump in the ceiling would come in 2024-25 and it would rise $1 million from its 2022-23 level of $82.5 million.

If/when the ceiling is raised significantly, it could make a lot of things possible, for a lot of teams.

Hextall also will have to assess the stable of potential replacements if Zucker were to leave, regardless of whose decision it would be. That means evaluating the free agents who don’t re-sign with their clubs before summer, as well players currently in the Pittsburgh Penguins’ prospects pipeline.

At least in the short term, there are few, if any, viable top-six forwards there. And no one currently on the Penguins’ third and fourth lines can realistically be expected to fill in for Zucker for an extended period, let alone permanently.

Mind you, Hextall always could try to trade for a second-line left winger, but as Minnesota’s asking price for Zucker showed, they aren’t cheap.

Two months ago, that option appeared to be one he might have to explore, and perhaps he still will.

But it also is quite conceivable that Zucker will continue to be effective and productive — which, implicitly, means being healthy enough to stay in the lineup — and persuade Hextall that he should be part of the franchise’s future well beyond next spring.

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Rob
Rob
13 days ago

So far, so good. I say live in the moment and see what happens for the rest of the season. This is the Zucker that JR traded for, let’s enjoy it. The past is the past and injuries cannot be prevented and shouldn’t be held against a player.

charmaine dawso
charmaine dawso
13 days ago

i hope they can find a way to retain Zucker…..finally getting to see what he brings to the team and the Malkin line….

Wasnt
13 days ago

Definitely a wait and see situation

Uros
Uros
13 days ago

Why would we need Zucker when we have Kapanen? Kidding aside, it seems the answer is within the question. As everyone signed a home discount deal, in exchange for term this year, I don’t see why it should be different for Zucker. If he rides this wave, you get him at a discount rate, which is my first option and hope. If something, god forbid, should go wrong, it will put the management in a tough spot, as there won’t be many takers. So let’s just sit tight, enjoy the fantastic play and hope for the best. We all thought… Read more »

Knobman
Knobman
13 days ago

Trade for Conor Garland now and put him or Rust as the 3RW. Garland is Zucker’s replacement for next year. Fanboy JR can have Kappy in return plus Archibald or Poehling.

Vince Gori
Vince Gori
12 days ago
Reply to  Knobman

Elegy does everyone think JR is just sitting back waiting for a trade for Kapanen

maybeTROLLn
maybeTROLLn
13 days ago

zuch a good dude

Alan Smith
13 days ago

After injuries they all seem to know how far they should go with dicey situations! Teddy learned and Malkin is being cool as well as Dummo! What 60 some games to go? The playoffs will tell his value! Let him earn a new salary with a Cup result! Malkin needs a gifted player on both sides! Love his spirit and smiles! He is worth the trade hopefully!

joe Cursi
joe Cursi
13 days ago

This is his contract year!!! Jarry is the priority!!!

Bill Maloni
Bill Maloni
12 days ago

“Pittsburgh Penguins pipeline?”

Shirley, you jest!
“”

John
John
12 days ago
Reply to  Bill Maloni

Don’t call me Shirley!

Zach
Zach
12 days ago

I think Zucker situation will depend on where The Penguins are in the standings by the trade deadline and also how Zucker’s production is as we get further into the season.

Rich Filardi
Rich Filardi
12 days ago

Zucker is playing very well right now, and hopefully that continues. I hope they dont extend him because i dont think that is the best move for the organization as 25 games of health doesnt forecast healthiness for 3-5 years down the road, might end up becoming another albatross of a contract, much like this one was due to health. Just Cannot take that risk.

He will either help the pens make the playoffs or if they find themselves outside looking in, they could have an asset to move.

Last edited 12 days ago by Rich Filardi
JICS
12 days ago
Reply to  Rich Filardi

If they can take the risks with Malkin, they can certainly take them with Zucker!

Rich Filardi
Rich Filardi
12 days ago
Reply to  JICS

With all due respect, Zucker is not even close to Malkin and about to be 31 this summer-Hextall should be fired again for signing him LT if he does- have to get younger on the wings, not continue to get older. Bad business for a team that most likely will not win the cup and perhaps will struggle to make the playoffs.

Dean
Dean
12 days ago

Oh, how the pendulum swings. A few good games somehow erase the memory of years of injuries and underperformance.

The best indicator of the future is the past.

The real discussion should be whether a trade makes sense while he plays well.

BIG B
BIG B
12 days ago

TRADE HIM WHILE HE IS HEALTHY AND FREE UP THE KAP!
YES KAP.

Rob
Rob
11 days ago
Reply to  BIG B

Speaking of Kap. Throw Kapanen in on the deal to Vancouver.

Rob
Rob
11 days ago
Reply to  Rob

Also a signing of Rodriguez looks better and better everyday vs the Kapanen signing and cheaper!

Rob
Rob
11 days ago

Get rid of Zucker! Get rid of Pettersson! Get rid of P.O Joseph! Boy how times have changed.Next will be yelling trade Rust if he doesn’t start scoring and diminish that -10 rating.Let’s not forget Letang on a pace of only scoring 5 goals for the season and being a -10 as of now
also.