Jason Zucker is finally a Pittsburgh Penguin.
Penguins winger Patric Hornqvist said it well on the Penguins first day back from their extended mid-season vacation on Jan. 30. The injury battered and beaten Penguins managed to surge to the fourth-best record in the NHL and third-best in the Eastern Conference.
“What an opportunity we have,” Hornqvist said. “We have a good team. You don’t have many chances to make something special, and this group is good.”
However, the Penguins have not been their dominant selves since they lost top-line winger Jake Guentzel to season-ending shoulder surgery on Dec. 30. The Penguins managed to win games, but opponents like Philadelphia and Florida forced them forced to hang on for dear life. Rather than confidence-inspiring wins, the Penguins were blitzed in several third periods.
They were also not able to keep pace with the Tampa Bay Lightning last Thursday when Tampa Bay outclassed the Penguins, 4-2.
And Penguins GM Jim Rutherford finally executed the trade which has been sitting on his and Minnesota Wild Bill Guerin’s desk for weeks. The Penguins sent their 2020 first-round pick (lottery protected), top-defenseman prospect Calen Addison, and struggling winger Alex Galchenyuk to Minnesota for aggressive winger Jason Zucker.
Rutherford appears to have accepted Guerin’s steep terms. It’s been rumored and reported for a few weeks (or months) the Penguins were after Zucker. A source recently told PHN the number one pick was necessarily going to be included if a deal was to be made. However, the prospect which the Rutherford gave up was an enormous coup for Minnesota, and well above the level of prospect we were told would be included.
We believe the escalation was necessary for Minnesota to accept Galchenyuk.
The first-rounder had to go to Minnesota. But Addison? Guerin heisted perhaps the Penguins top prospect, offensive defenseman, 19-year-old Calen Addison. Addison asserted himself at the 2020 World Junior Championships, and it’s a big loss for the Penguins whose prospect cupboard is relatively bare.
The Penguins top blueline prospect is now PO Joseph. That’s a significant loss for the Penguins. Huge. Addison was ready to turn pro next season. While he probably wasn’t going to be a John Marino story, within 18-24 months, he could have assumed a substantial role on the Penguins blue line.
The winner of the deal? Minnesota. Clearly. The Penguins gave a ransom for a player who was recently demoted to the Minnesota fourth line, but Guerin held firm and drove the price to its peak.
However, Penguins GM Jim Rutherford finally got his man. Zucker is a fast, solid winger with hands. For Penguins fans who haven’t seen much of him, he can be a more offensive version of Brandon Tanev.
Zucker, 28, makes $5.5 million per season, and his contract has three more years, so it wasn’t a rental. Minnesota won the deal, but if Zucker fits as well with the Penguins gritty forecheck game as he should, then the Penguins didn’t lose the deal, either.
Zucker should fit well on the left-wing beside Sidney Crosby this season. If he does not mesh with Crosby, the Penguins have additional options, including flipping Bryan Rust to the top line and Zucker to Evgeni Malkin’s line.
The Penguins were forced into this move by injuries and their potential to do something special. Teams don’t get many chances at greatness, and credit Rutherford for going for it. He is the GM every fan should want. There is no “wait until next year.”
Zucker has 29 points this season, including 14 goals. He has at least 20 goals in each of the past three seasons and had 33 markers in 2017-18.
The Penguins added only $177k to their salary cap hit, so they technically have space to add more. Though, the Penguins lack are additional assets to add those players.
Without a No. 1 pick, without a top defensive prospect, the Penguins are all-in. They can’t afford to acquire much more. The Penguins still have a third-round pick, and additional acquisitions could require its inclusion, too.
The last significant deadline acquisition had to be undone last February when Rutherford flipped Derrick Brassard to Florida for Jared McCann and Nick Bjugstad. Ironically, that deal paid far more dividends than acquiring Brassard.
If Zucker delivers, Addison will be only a footnote in Penguins history, but Zucker must deliver.