The Pittsburgh Penguins practice included a welcome face on Sunday. LW Jason Zucker shed the non-contact jersey and was a full-go for the Penguins practice at the UPMC Lemieux Sports Complex. Zucker was beaming as he batted the puck around to Marcus Pettersson and took his spot on the Penguins second-power play unit.
Zucker will be a game-time decision on Monday night, according to head coach Mike Sullivan.
If Zucker doesn’t play on Monday night against the New York Islanders, he will soon draw into the lineup, and the question should be asked–then what?
What should the Pittsburgh Penguins do with Jason Zucker?
“I feel good right now,” Zucker said. “As far as the lineup goes, I feel I don’t have any updates there, but this was a good step in the right direction to be back with the guys and, you know, being able to take some contact and just be a part of the overall flow of the practice. So I thought that was a good next step, and we’ll just take it from here.”
With Zucker, the Penguins lines are still a dorm room mix-and-match set of paper plates and plastic cups. Except, of course, for the Penguins’ top line with Jake Guentzel, Sidney Crosby, and Bryan Rust.
Possible Penguins Lines –with Zucker
As you can see, there isn’t another line unscathed by injuries after the top line. Yet, the Penguins not only scooped four points from the lowly Buffalo Sabres trough but dominated the scoreboard against the first-place New York Islanders on Saturday, too.
“The guys have really stepped up. Obviously, Sid’s line has been incredibly good. But I think throughout the entire lineup, guys have really stepped up and played well from (Zohorna) getting his first goal to (Anthony Angello) and Freddy (Gaudreau) playing,” Zucker said. “So many guys come to the top that have been playing really well. So it takes an army when you have a ton of guys out to come back and play and get these wins.”
But that’s not the issue that will be under Mike Sullivan’s consideration next month. When Evgeni Malkin returns, and Teddy Blueger returns, and Jared McCann presumably goes back to LW, where does McCann or Zucker fit?
How about these Penguins lines:
Those lines look like a team that might be able to do some damage, no?
That’s your first thought, right? Trade him! Recoup prospects and picks that former GM Jim Rutherford dished to Minnesota for Zucker.
It’s not going to work like that, at least this year. The 2021 NHL trade deadline is set to be the biggest buyer’s market, perhaps ever. Zucker’s $5.5 million salary might as well be a scarlet letter. The new Penguins Hockey Ops department will assuredly not get a top defenseman prospect and a first-round pick in return.
In fact, if the Penguins were to trade Zucker before the April 12 NHL trade deadline, it might be the worst Penguins asset flip since Markus Naslund for Alex Stojanovich. Zucker’s contract has two more seasons beyond this one and has just seven points (4g, 3a) in 17 games this season.
We’re not ruling out a trade, but we are ruling out getting much value in return. Eric Staal fetched a third and fifth-round pick. If the Penguins decide to move Zucker, it would be for salary cap space. The current financial situation for most NHL teams nullifies Zucker’s value as a fast winger with some offensive pop and a little sandpaper.
Re-Adjusting Penguins Lines
PHN has steadfastly maintained that Zucker and Malkin do not mix. For the entirety of the pandemic pause, our analysis found no redeeming qualities for the pair, no matter how deep or shallow.
Together, their anemic production last season, albeit in a short 60-minute sample, combined with the malaise they began this season, only supports the oil and water theory. Zucker is a straight line, don’t-look-back player. At the same time, Malkin is…one of the most gifted players ever, but decidedly not a straight-line player.
While Kasperi Kapanen, who is also injured, formed chemistry with Malkin, Zucker did not.
Will Sullivan try to shoehorn Zucker with Malkin again?
A quick check of the advanced stats from NaturalStatTrick.com screams no. In 207 minutes, Zucker and Malkin were underwater in nearly every important category. They ceded more goals than scored (8-10), expected goals-for (44%), and the scoring chances were underwater (47%), as were the high-danger chances (37%).
McCann may have benefitted from better timing as Malkin and Kapanen found their stride, but McCann’s production with the pair was well above board. More goals for (5-3), more scoring chances (62%), expected goals-for (59%), and high-danger chance (56%).
McCann also brings a speed game, a hard wrist shot, and a better ability to read Malkin.
The Penguins coaches will have to break up the highly successful Penguins third line with Blueger, Brandon Tanev, and Zach Aston-Reese. However, the speed of the Zucker beside Tanev and Blueger is a tantalizing thought.
It may not be $5.5 million of value, but the line could be even better with Zucker.
The fourth line with Aston-Reese and Frederick Gaudreau (or Mark Jankowski) also doesn’t sound so bad, either.
Jason Zucker Staying Put?
As you lay out the options, unless the Pittsburgh Penguins desperately need Zucker’s cap space, a trade would be a big loss for the Penguins, unless Anaheim Ducks captain Ryan Getzlaf would be interested in a short Pittsburgh stay. Then all bets are off.
But until that unlikelihood moves into the possible category, keeping Zucker and finding the right spot could be far more beneficial.