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Penguins Salary Cap Option: Buy Out Jason Zucker?

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Jason Zucker Pittsburgh Penguins Trade

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.

But…

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.

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Bokonon80
Bokonon80
16 days ago

Math is a stubborn thing and the Pens lack the money to do what’s needed.

Time is even more stubborn and a narrow window has been partly wasted with second line wingers who can’t play.

Unfortunately, the buyout is still a net salary cap hit bc you’re going to pay more than 3.5 for Zucker’s replacement. Tough spot. A package trade for literally anything is the only path IMO.

Cal
Cal
16 days ago

Zucker is not a bad player but as you showed above he is also not a 5.5 million player either. I’d like to see the Pens not buy him out and hope that his health returns. So he is not great value but buyouts have to be the worst form of asset management.

Biggus
Biggus
16 days ago

Dump him, he may be a nice guy, but he is definitely a waste of money and roster space

Rich Filardi
Rich Filardi
16 days ago

Can the pens trade Johnson dead cap hit with a 7th rd pick to a team trying to get to the floor?

moe
moe
16 days ago
Reply to  Rich Filardi

Now there’s a smart idea. Is there a team that would do that? Come on guys, there are 31 of you out there. Help yourself and help the Pens for a sweet 7th round pick in 2023

Rob
Rob
16 days ago
Reply to  Rich Filardi

Trade Zucker or Pettersson to a team looking to get to the cap floor.

I have only seen teams trade cap hits of players who aren’t still playing, so maybe that is a rule?

Bob
Bob
16 days ago

How about Malkin making 30 million over three years and only played a little over a year and a half those 3 seasons with injuries.

moe
moe
16 days ago
Reply to  Bob

and put up how many points?

Knobman
Knobman
15 days ago
Reply to  Bob

Isn’t that the truth. It’s funny how these articles bring up the injury factor as a reason to dump someone who isn’t generating value but ignore Geno’s time off with injuries and want to sign him for multiple years close to what he is making now. Why should the Pens pay a guy top dollar when he is hurt all the time and takes off a lot of games when he is playing. Need to move on from him and maybe even Letang. There are alternatives out there for cheaper. Hextall needs to quit sitting on his hands and show… Read more »

Chase Cranson
Chase Cranson
11 days ago
Reply to  Knobman

Hextall has no success record hopefully the new owners will have input

Keith T.
Keith T.
16 days ago

Good article! Zucker has been a huge disappointment since his highly touted arrival when JR gave up a #1pick, Calen Addison & Alex Gaichennyuk. It is something to consider if he is unable to be moved. Perhaps he is radioactive and nobody will touch him no matter what so the Pens are stuck with a massively overpaid player. Typically, I am not in favor of a buy-out as it rewards poor performance. BUT A Buy-out might be the only option. His health is always an issue. Is there any chance of a LTIR scenario for him?

moe
moe
16 days ago
Reply to  Keith T.

Yah, Kucherov him!

Vince Gori
Vince Gori
16 days ago

Yeah, buy out Zucker. Fans are still crying over the last buy out of Jack Johnson and he’s playing for the Cup. Not a good move if you ask me.

Scott
Scott
16 days ago

Trade him to Buffalo as a cap dump like Dallas did with Bishop

Mike Donnelly
Mike Donnelly
16 days ago

It’s like playing the stock market. Buy high and sell low? Or do you hold onto the stock for a while… believing that it might accrue some more value?

Pete
Pete
16 days ago

If 58 and 71 were interested in more cups they would sign for 5.5 to 6 AAV.

John
John
15 days ago
Reply to  Pete

Youre not signing 58 for 5.5 or 6. Will start with a 7. 71 you could probably get for something that starts with a 6. Not sure how Dan believes it will be 16 for both. Whats that 9 for Letang and 7 for Malkin? Let them both walk if it cost that much

DaGama
DaGama
15 days ago

The AVs found a way for JJ to succeed in their system while Sully’s Pens did not.

Chase Cranson
Chase Cranson
11 days ago
Reply to  DaGama

Correct

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