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From Trade Block to Essential: Zucker & Pettersson Wash Away Bitter Tastes

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Almost exclusively, the offseason analysis, salary cap projections, and Pittsburgh Penguins roster projections mentioned potential NHL trade bait Jason Zucker or Marcus Petterson. As the Penguins roster projected to exceed the salary cap, both were the primary source of speculation.

Both make a significant salary, and both had a sour taste from disappointing personal seasons last year.

Zucker had only 18 points (9-9-18) in 38 games. In addition to missing time with a leg injury, Zucker never found his rhythm. It was his first “full” season with the Penguins after the team acquired him from the Minnesota Wild for trade pieces, including the Penguins’ first-round pick and top defenseman prospect Calen Addison.

Zucker made more than a few people question if the Penguins trade was a good idea.

“Last year was awful, to be honest. I didn’t like my game at all. I thought there were some really good points and some really bad points. For me, it was a good summer for me to adjust my game and feel really good coming into this year,” Zucker blasted himself in training camp.

Marcus Pettersson was the cat’s meow of the Penguins acquired him for Daniel Sprong in December 2018. Anaheim didn’t think Pettersson was a regular NHL defender, and the Penguins didn’t think Sprong would become an NHL player, at least with them.

Pettersson immediately earned ice time and a regular role on the Penguins blue line. After playing for his qualifying offer in 2019, because the team didn’t have enough cap space to give him more, his five-year, $20,125,875 contract kicked in last season.

“I felt like last year I kind of wasn’t that aggressive. I was looking for an extra play, or whatever. Same in the D-zone–(I want to be) more aggressive, trying to stop plays early so we can get on the offense just as a team,” Pettersson said during the September training camp.

With a $4.025 million AAV, Pettersson did not have a good season in 2020-21. He admitted that at the end of the season and again in training camp. The warts of his game showed.

Fast forward through 17 games of a chaotic 2021-22 Pittsburgh Penguins season, and both players are laying waste to their seasons of swoon, and both are playing some of their best hockey since arrival.

Pettersson’s d-partner John Marino noticed, too.

“We’re both playing at a high level. You can see his game has really come along and he’s playing well right now, and it’s easy to feed off that,” Marino said after practice on Oct. 20.

Just How Good?

Zucker has been especially good, especially beside Jeff Carter. Zucker currently has the highest Corsi (56%), shots-for (58.8%), and expected goals-for (58.8%) of his career.

But those are just the advanced numbers. He has seven points (3-4-7) in 16 games. His shooting percentage (6.7%) is lower than usual, so if he begins to bury a few more chances, his points should align with career highs, too.

It’s a significant course correction for a player who makes $5.5 million for this season and next.

In terms of advanced statistics, Marcus Pettersson is well above career highs. He’s having the best season of his young career.

Pettersson is on the plus side of every ledger: Corsi (53.7%), shots (55.6%), expected goals-for (57%), scoring chances (55.6%), and the biggest difference is in high-danger scoring chances (59.6%). All stats are courtesy of naturalstattrick.com. 

Considering the Pittsburgh Penguins blue line has been wrecked by injuries, Pettersson’s elevation is in the face of playing with different defense partners and partners who are depth defensemen in the organization.

In other words, Pettersson has boat raced his previous career standards despite playing with Juuso Riikola, Mark Friedman, and Chad Ruhwedel.

It’s probably not a coincidence that Pettersson’s new partner, John Marino, is seeing a turnaround, too.

Look, the knocks on Pettersson were not secret. Opposing forechecks gobbled him up. As he turned to go back on pucks, he was in trouble. His offensive contributions were limited to the first pass out of the zone, and even those seemed to dip last season.

Pettersson is shooting more–and it’s obvious. At the fun blue line, he’s looking for shot lanes and not giving up easily.

Assertive is a good description for his game at both ends of the ice.

Pettersson’s AAV over $4 million is no longer an issue. A second-pairing D-man with four points (1-3-4) in 12 games and a healthy plus-7 rating is worth at least that.

Back in training camp, Mike Sullivan acknowledged Pettersson’s disappointment in his own game.

“I think he self-assessed is extremely well. He might be harder on himself than any of the rest of us. And that’s just an indication of, you know, of the type of person that he is,” Sullivan said. “But our expectation and our hope is that we can help him get to another level as well.”

That mission appears to be going pretty well. Pettersson beat himself up just a bit. If his own words don’t read that way, the tone surely did.

And his play is making a statement this season, too. Pettersson has been one of the consistent pillars of the Penguins season.

Maybe he should stick around for a while, and it sounds like you agree.

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Pittsburgh Hockey Now Editor-in-Chief, formerly 93.7 The Fan, Sportsnet Hockey Tonight, NHL Home Ice. Catch Dan tweeting @theDanKingerski and the official @pghhockeynow account.

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Robert Shoemaker
Robert Shoemaker (@rob71)
15 days ago

Its great that they are playing better! As long as the team is winning, they both should be taken off the trade block. If it comes the trade deadline and the penguins are out of a playoff spot, they could fetch a valuable draft pick or prospect. For now, every thing is good the last 2 games! Go Pens

Ethan Kelley
15 days ago

Yeah. Strange for Dan to call them “essential” at this point cause if the Pens stay close to the cellar those guys are both gone by deadline for a couple bags of Utz. Also wing and Left D are the few positions of surplus on the roster at the moment. 10 million in salary will always equal a lot of reasons to trade. 10 is also the number of games it has been (I think) since Zucker last scored. Corsi this, Corsi that. Stats change like the wind out west!

Kris
Kris
15 days ago

Dan agree with you that both players are doing well. For the record I never lost faith in Zucker but Pettersson well….

So here is the question, when Malkin returns, we are going to be over the cap. Something has to give and someone has got to go, no?

Jay95
Jay95 (@jay95)
14 days ago
Reply to  Dan Kingerski

Dan, they do recoup “pro rated” cap space at the trade deadline for all of the time away too, correct? And, I feel like this team totally healthy (never happens) may have some interesting decisions. Obviously the Blueger line will be considered the 4th line. But, who takes that 3rd line center roll will be interesting. Rodriguez is so much better there than on the wing. Wondering if Carter hits E-Rods wing – though I’d rather see Carter with Geno as either C or right wing and Kap move with Rodriguez – and Heinen stays on as the 3rd line… Read more »

Rob
Rob
14 days ago
Reply to  Jay95

I definitely want to see Carter and Geno. I also feel like they need to break up that top line at some point to even out all the lines and they have not been effective in the playoffs either. Or maybe put Sid and Geno together?

This is what i would do:

Guentzel-Crosby-Zucker
Malkin-Carter-Rust
Heinen-Rodrigues-Kapanen
ZAR-Blueger-McGinn

Would like to put Boyle in there somewhere too, but Where? This is all moot anyway because, as we all know, this team is never fully healthy 😕

Last edited 14 days ago by Robert Shoemaker
Frank
Frank
15 days ago

Fortunately both Zucker and Pederson are playing well, but that is in comparison to last year . .. so the bar is not that high. At the same time they are not playing so well that they have earned a status that would make moving them very hard decision. They overpaid for Zucker and the Pederson deal was something of a wash. Despite the theory that Sprong has blossomed into a scoring machine he is largely a middle of the road forward that has probably peaked and prone to backsliding. Not terribly different than Pederson. All that aside . .… Read more »

Ethan Kelley
15 days ago
Reply to  Frank

I think as long as Wilson is lurking like a shark near the Chesapeake–Boyle stays on roster as affordable bodyguard. Now if they were able to pluck another tough guy net-front-presence with quick fists, well then… .wishes and fishes!

Eric
Eric
14 days ago
Reply to  Ethan Kelley

Boyle is and never was an enforcer.

Ethan
Ethan
14 days ago
Reply to  Eric

Alright I’ll take the bait…though your “is and never was” is a bit oxymoronic. Yes Boyle is not a true enforcer and just so you know Wilson isn’t technically a shark–I think. My point was (not sure you comprehended) and still is that Boyle is the closest thing to a tough guy on Penguins roster at this point. So unless Guins sign somebody else–I’ll wager you this bet–Boyle, if healthy, will be in lineup next time we face the Caps (also assuming that Wilson is also still circling)!

Rick
Rick
15 days ago

Sorry, I can’t agree. First, the team is barely over 0.500, so no one is essential. Second, stats are like sound bites, the can be taken out of context. The only stat that really counts is Wins. Goals become the second most important stat – particularly in terms of goal differential at the end of the game. Shots can become important, but then again, alone, they are iffy in importance. Shots can be categorized as High, Medium, and Low Danger, not to be confused with High, Medium, and Low Danger Chances. You can get a High Danger Chance and lose… Read more »

Steve Malik
Steve Malik
14 days ago

They still should trade Zucker , does he know how to lite the red lamp ?

Jay95
Jay95 (@jay95)
14 days ago
Reply to  Steve Malik

Yeah, Zucker is kind of an anomaly to me. He’s produced in the past. He’s at his best when mixing things up. His shot is above average. His skating is tremendous…not only speed, but edge work too. It makes him “slippery”. I just don’t get why it hasn’t fully come together as a Pen. I’d still love to see him on Sid’s left with Jake on Geno’s. But, if you can get a decent return, or a proven power forward who can net 15-20, I think you make that trade.

Last edited 14 days ago by Jay95
Rick
Rick
14 days ago
Reply to  Jay95

If you remember David Perron, Zucker gives me the same feel. He played well before coming to Pgh started off fairly strong and then tanked. After leaving Pgh and going back out west his scoring took off again. Some players play better in the east some play better in the west.

I agree with you, the team could get a much stronger return on their investment in Zucker, should they end up keeping him, moving him to Crosby’s line with Guentzel down to Malkin’s line would provide better punch.

Eric
Eric
14 days ago
Reply to  Rick

over the past decade the Penguins have acquired numerous players to play with Crosby. We have traded for Peron, Zucker, Kapenen, and even McCann with intentions to play along side of Sid with no real success. I have no idea why. The only constant in the equation is Sid.

Jay95
Jay95 (@jay95)
14 days ago
Reply to  Eric

Zucker’s actually been good next to Sid. Just doesn’t mesh well with Geno. Perron was a streaky and inconsistent his entire career. Neither Kapanen or McCann were brought in for that reason. Kapanen was looking at a “top 6” wing, but not necessarily with Sid. He’s barely touched the ice with him. And, McCann was still looked at as a third liner with upside. He also played well with Sid and Jake though.

Eric
Eric
13 days ago
Reply to  Jay95

That’s incorrect jay95. Both kap and McCann were brought in for Sid’s line. Do your research. The trade with Fla was supposed to address the 3rd line center with Bugsted and 1st line winger wit JM, disagree with Zucker being good with Sid. If he was a good fit he would be there, especially with that salary.

Jay95
Jay95 (@jay95)
14 days ago

I agree with some of the comments in regards to the Pens being .500, and that these guys aren’t necessarily going to be “essential” to the future. But, if this team can hang in there until the trade deadline they’ll be in a good spot. They’re a lot deeper than we thought, they have a legitimately dangerous roster when fully healthy with a few other players (Heinen, E-Rod, O’Connor) really coming in to their own. And, unexpected performances by Simon and Boyle. So, I feel that Zucker and Pettersson are CURRENTLY essential to keep us somewhere around a playoff spot.… Read more »

Rick
Rick
14 days ago
Reply to  Jay95

Question Jay, is hanging around for a playoff spot that important? I know anything can happen if you just get the dance but seriously what would you rate the probabilities of this team doing more than just another 1 and done playoff? Do you think Malkin will turn the team around when he gets back? I know Malkin was the top scorer in terms of Pnts/60 last playoffs, that team had both Sid and Geno and still checked out in the first round. As you note, the team may have Cap space come trade dead line, but you have to… Read more »

Jay95
Jay95 (@jay95)
14 days ago
Reply to  Rick

Great question. To me it is. If they push for the playoffs than both Sid and Geno are playing well along with the rest of the cast. And, with revenue down because no one’s going to games currently, like, anywhere…I’d say that the playoff revenue is REALLY needed. Now, I do agree that they need to get out of the first round, which I’m fairly confident they’re capable of with the depth that they have. And, I trust Jarry. That said, that backup goalie position may be key. And, I don’t want to give up much prospect or pick wise.… Read more »

Rick
Rick
13 days ago
Reply to  Jay95

Maybe Lamoureux will not light up you NHL 22 team but he was just given an A rating by the scouts, is 6-7 ~200 lbs at age 17, RD. He won’t be a top 10 pick, and maybe not even a 1st round selection. But then again, there aren’t a whole lot of players that will net the Pens a top 10 draft pick in a deadline trade or even a 1st round pick. If I limited my wish list to just top 10 picks then any opinions I may express would be relatively useless. Bobby Orr, he ain’t but… Read more »

Timm
Timm
13 days ago

Everyone: “Carter is great! The GOAT.”
Same people: “Trade Zucker! He sucks!”
Yet they have the exact same goal and assist count. And Zucker has a better +/-. And better advanced stats.

WHY DOES EVERYONE HATE ZUCKER?

Rick
Rick
13 days ago
Reply to  Timm

Not sure how many people hate Zucker. In fact a lot of what I have read sees him as a decent hockey player but on the wrong team (just like Perron). That is not the same as hating him. Furthermore, if you want to compare Zucker to Carter, let’s talk a 1st round draft pick and a prospect, Calen Addison (RD): Carter a conditional 3rd round pick and a 4th round pick. Then there is Zucker’s $5.5 million salary vs Carter’s $2 million ($2.6 million cap hit). If Zucker was producing at 2 times Carter I could accept your argument… Read more »

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