The best things in life are free, but you keep them for the birds and bees. The Pittsburgh Penguins need money.
Actually, they need salary-cap space. While the Penguins have over $23 million in space, signing both Evgeni Malkin and Kris Letang will gobble up most of that. So will Letang’s and Malkin’s replacements.
Our unofficial guestimate is the pair will cost about $16 million combined, which leaves the Penguins about $7 million to sign three middle-six wingers, a backup goalie, and depth. That pittance left in the piggy bank is more suitable for two middle-sixers, leaving the Penguins bereft of salary cap dollars for anything else.
They need more. That’s what they want.
The NHL buyout window begins 48 hours after the Stanley Cup Final ends. It should last two weeks, but the NHL may have to set a new date because the Final could extend very close to the June 30 deadline (original dates were set before the season was paused at mid-season, so some adjustments may be necessary).
Suppose the Penguins do spend about $16 million on Malkin and Letang. In that case, they will need at least $10 million to complete their offseason replenishment, probably $12 million, with Stanley Cup-worthy effectiveness.
How do they get from where they are to where they need to be?
Here’s one potential quick fix: Buy out Jason Zucker.
First-year savings, according to the CapFriendly.com calculator: $3.4 million. (Year Two will be over $1.7 million of dead cap space).
Suddenly, just over $7 million becomes about $10.5 million.
Pittsburgh Penguins Opportunity
Make no mistake, the suggestion is no slight to what Zucker can bring to the Pittsburgh Penguins lineup. Zucker was a ball of forechecking energy when he returned to the lineup in the playoffs after his third extended injury absence that was presumably related to the other two. However, he played only with the help of trainers, bubble gum, and duct tape (gum figuratively, of course. The tape, maybe not).
The downside is threefold. First, in the second year of the buyout, the Penguins would receive a $1.7 million cap hit. Second is the cost of replacing yet another middle-six winger. And a healthy Zucker fits the Penguins’ system and style very well.
But, $5.5 million, even for just one more season, is well more than a .5 points-per-game player is worth. Zucker’s health over the past two seasons has further impeded his contributions to the lineup.
Since a solid 12 points in his first 15 games after former Penguins GM Jim Rutherford finally got his man, Zucker has underperformed both his contract and the price the Penguins paid to acquire him, including a first-round pick and their top prospect (Calen Addison).
In 79 games over the last two seasons, Zucker has just 35 points, with 17 goals. He’s also a minus-10 in that time. For context, Danton Heinen had 33 points with 18 goals in 76 games this season and made just $1.1 million.
To rub a little salt in that context, Derrick Brassard had 19 points in 46 games with the Philadelphia Flyers and Edmonton Oilers.
Continuing with the context that only worsens, J.T. Miller scored 99 points for the Vancouver Canucks with a $5.25 million cap hit. Similarly priced wingers, Tom Wilson (52 points), Ondrej Palat (49), Nino Niederreiter (44), Oliver Bjorkstrand (57), Reilly Smith (38p in 56 games), Jaden Schwartz (23p in 37 games), Anthony Mantha (23 points in 37 games), and a gaggle of others had well more points this season or points per game in the same price Zucker range.
The LW free-agent crop may include Colorado Avalanche winger Andre Burakovsky, who scored 61 points (22-39-61) with a $4.9 AAV. Florida’s Mason Marchment, 27, will be in line for a payday, too, after the $800,000-player scored 47 points (18-29-47) in 54 games.
Penguins UFA wingers Evan Rodrigues and Rickard Rakell each scored more than 40 points this season and cost a combined $4.789 million.
OK, point made.
Last September, Jason Zucker admitted he didn’t much care for his 2020-21 season, “Last year was awful, to be honest with you.”
In training camp, Zucker said he felt great, so his reoccurring injury, which eventually required core muscle surgery, likely occurred after that. However, the results were another lost season with mediocre production.
Pittsburgh Penguins analysis:
The emotion and optimism of the situation are tangible. Zucker is a good player and locker room guy, though the Penguins have many of those, too. Zucker’s potential is a 30-goal scorer who can provide speed and intense forecheck. He brought a wave of energy to the Penguins’ middle-six forwards against the New York Rangers in Round One.
To see the potential and hope for one good year is tempting.
It’s also tempting to avoid the buyout because the Penguins still have potential Stanley Cup-winning defenseman Jack Johnson on the payroll until 2026. Johnson will cost over $1.9 million next season before proceeding to just over $900,000 in the next three years. Johnson’s 900k combined with the $1.7 million penalty on Zucker would negate about $2.6 million salary cap dollars in 2023-24.
Zucker isn’t a net-front winger or a PK guy, either. He is a winger more comfortable on the outside.
Given the adequate number of LW free agents on the market–there are about a dozen in the 40 to 50-point range–the Penguins have a chance to find some talent on the market at a more cost-effective price.
Perhaps they won’t have Zucker’s vibe, spark, or energy, but reliability and production go a long way, too. A third-line winger capable of 40 points who can also kill penalties would be an excellent get. In fact, so would two of them.
One caveat, in his breakup day interviews, Zucker said he would be working with doctors this summer to develop a plan to get healthy. If he’s injured, he cannot receive a buyout.
Since the Penguins have not announced a surgery yet, we’ll make the leap that he’s rehabbing or resting the injury.
From this pew, it seems a good choice to take the opportunity to save nearly $3.5 million and apply that to top-end players such as Evgeni Malkin, Kris Letang, or replacements thereof. The Zucker buyout makes a lot of sense.