NASHVILLE, Tenn. — The initial reaction to the Pittsburgh Penguins’ acquisition of Reilly Smith Wednesday was that they had found Jason Zucker’s replacement.
Zucker, after all, is scheduled to become an unrestricted free agent Saturday, and his departure would create a gaping void on the No. 2 line.
And it is entirely possible that things will play out that way, that Smith, who scored 26 goals for Vegas last season, will be plugged into the spot Zucker, who scored 27, was filling alongside Evgeni Malkin and Rickard Rakell.
But Mike Sullivan, who met with reporters during Round 1 of the NHL Draft at Bridgestone Arena a few hours after the Smith trade was finalized, said that adding him doesn’t mean the Penguins have given up on keeping Zucker.
“I don’t think it (precludes Zucker returning),” he said. “I know Kyle (Dubas, the Penguins’ president of hockey operations) has spoken to (Zucker’s) agent and (Zucker) is a valuable player for our team. Our coaching staff, we’re certainly hopeful that we can get something accomplished and keep (Zucker) in our locker room.
“He had a real good year for us last year. He’s a big part of our team. I know his teammates really value what he brings to the table. … I don’t think that just because we made this deal today means anything other than we added a real good player and we’re a better team.”
Dubas echoed that sentiment a few hours later, saying that the addition of Smith “certainly doesn’t close the door” on keeping Zucker.
Zucker is perhaps the most prominent member of a group of potential UFAs that includes Tristan Jarry and Brian Dumoulin. Sullivan said he has not ruled out any of them returning.
“I know Kyle is in discussions with all of them, as far as potentially re-signing with our team,” Sullivan said. “We really like our team. We’re hopeful we can keep some of these guys on our roster and in our locker room. We’ll see where that goes. There are a lot of variables there.”
While Smith would be a logical fit at left wing on the second line, he is versatile enough to play on either wing and fill a variety of roles.
“I’m sure we’ll probably explore different options,” Sullivan said.
It’s clear, though, that he projects into a prominent spot in the lineup.
“We’re really excited to add Reilly to our roster,” Sullivan said. “He brings so much, with the versatility of his game. One of the strengths of his game is his hockey IQ, on both sides of the puck.
“He’s a conscientious player defensively. He has an offensive element to his game; obviously, he scored 26 goals last year. His body of work in the league suggests that he can score goals. He can play either wing. He kills penalties. He’s on the power play.
“The fact he’s been used in all situations is suggestive of his hockey IQ. That he sees it pretty well, offensively, and plays with some pretty good offensive players. Produces, as well, offensively consistently. But also brings a defensive, two-way game, which I think is important to winning. Especially when the stakes get high.”
One factor that mitigates in favor of playing Smith with Malkin is his effectiveness off the rush.
“(Malkin) is a pretty dynamic player off the rush, also,” Sullivan said. “They’re not the only ones. Sid (Crosby) and Jake (Guentzel) are pretty good off the rush, also. Depending on where we utilize (Smith), I think he can add that element to at least be a complementary part to that aspect of our game.”
One thing that seems certain is that Smith will be used when the Penguins are shorthanded.
“It’s such an important aspect of the game,” Sullivan said. “I thought our penalty-kill was somewhat volatile this past year. We have higher expectations there, and I think Reilly is a guy who can help us in that capacity.”
Regardless of the niches Smith ends up filling, Sullivan seems confident that the Pittsburgh Penguins are better because of his presence.
“He’s a real good player,” Sullivan said. “He’s going to make us a better hockey team, without a doubt. We’re convinced.”