NHL Free Agency: Jason Zucker’s Market Value, Penguins Limitations
Jason Zucker became part of the fabric and heart of the Pittsburgh Penguins. After a pair of injury-plagued seasons, Zucker finally delivered on the potential former GM Jim Rutherford saw when he dealt a top prospect and a first-rounder to Minnesota to acquire the feisty winger. The Penguins finally got the best from Zucker, but might lose him this summer to free agency.
Who said life was fair?
Complicating all free agency this summer will be the coming NHL salary cap spike. Once the NHLPA pays back the owners for the disproportionate distributions during the COVID season, the salary cap is projected to skyrocket over the coming years.
Will UFAs bet on themselves and cash in later, or take the deals now?
In more concrete matters, the NHL’s Stanley Cup playoffs should be an eyeful for whoever runs the Penguins. The speed, ferocity, and physicality involved in several series are striking.
Could the Penguins have competed with the top teams?
No, probably not.
However, as long as Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin, and Kris Letang are still elite players, the Penguins have a chance to make the postseason and do a little bit of damage.
However, Zucker has missed 81 games over the previous three seasons before missing only four games this season. He also scored 48 points, including his second-best career goal total of 27, and was a fixture beside Malkin.
Zucker’s puck retrieval granted Evgeni Malkin even more chances.
Zucker’s infectious attitude and intensity were sorely needed by the Penguins, where it was otherwise in short supply.
He chirped teammates all season. From making a hat “honoring” Brian Dumoulin, to teasing Bryan Rust about a fight, “That guy has fought a pillow like seven times in his career,” to saying Jake Guentzel paid off the goalie after he scored a softy, Zucker can be the life of the party on and off the ice.
“He’s one of the more vocal guys on our team. He engages a lot with that game away from the game, so to speak, with some of the talk that goes on between our opponents and our team on the ice,” coach Mike Sullivan said Dec. 21. “You know, Zuck, he’s pretty good at that. Sometimes he has the ability to drag us into the fight.”
The Penguins badly need fast, physical players with some personality like Zucker. And that’s why the Penguins should aggressively try to re-sign him, but not at all costs.
The last part of that sentence is the most important. The Penguins cannot hurt themselves three years into the future because their situation will be wildly different.
Zucker had good numbers this season, but not entirely irreplaceable, either.
So, what is Zucker worth on the open market?
Jason Zucker Comparables:
To set the market, last summer, Ondrej Palat snared a five-year, $30 million ($6 million AAV) deal from New Jersey. Palat, 31 at the time of signing, had 49 points with Tampa Bay in 2021-22, though only 18 goals.
Andre Burakovsky, 27 at the time of signing, had 22 goals and 61 points with Colorado before signing a five-year deal with Seattle that carries a $5.5 million AAV.
Even lesser scorers cashed in. Ilya Mikheyev, 27, had 32 points, including 21 goals in 53 games leading to a four-year deal from Vancouver with a $4.75 million AAV.
So, at the very least, Zucker is worth $5 million, barring an “I want to stay” discount.
The deal to Palat likely sets the upper end for Zucker, too. Zucker’s substantial injury history, his sideways couple of seasons in Minnesota before being dealt to the Penguins, and his attention-grabbing season in 2022-23 are all factors, but the reality is the money will be similar.
Of course, a GM could go crazy and offer more than $6 million, in which case the Penguins are better off wishing him well in his new endeavors.
The sticking point will be the term. Palat got five years, but he doesn’t play the same gritty game, and his body hasn’t undergone the same rigors.
Zucker’s current five-year deal with a $5.5 million AAV expires on July 1.
Can he maintain for another five years?
Jason Zucker Contract Outlook:
Given Zucker’s speed game and injury history, it seems unlikely he’ll be as effective at 36. The odds are greater that he’ll wear down and be less effective in a few years.
Zucker may get a few dollars more from a hungry team, or the market may chase the younger UFAs (like Tyler Bertuzzi), leaving Zucker with a few dollars less. Those are his risks.
Injuries and future production are the Penguins’ risks.
Based on the market, it seems a four-year, $22-24 million deal makes the most sense and should be the Pittsburgh Penguins’ limit. Anything below that is a win for the organization. Above that, wish him well.
Now, about finding a Penguins GM.