Penguins Make Big Splash with Zucker

When general manager Jim Rutherford wants a player, he’ll find a way to get him. Every time.

After what felt like an eternity of rumors, the Pittsburgh Penguins have finally landed Jason Zucker. In exchange, the team sent Alex Galchenyuk, defensive prospect Calen Addison, and a 2020 first-round pick to the Minnesota Wild.

Seeing the Penguins give up on Galchenyuk so soon is disappointing but not entirely surprising. What does come as a bit of a shock is Rutherford including both a first-round pick and the team’s top prospect.

Rutherford Finally Gets his Guy

In a way, technically, Rutherford was still able to trade Phil Kessel for Zucker, even if it did require a little extra patience and a lot of phone calls.

Kessel — who was dished to the Arizona Coyotes for a package built around Galchenyuk — was reportedly traded to the Wild last June for Zucker. However, his modified no-trade clause allowed him to block the deal. Instead, Rutherford parlayed the initial return for Kessel to land Zucker anyway.

Zucker carries a $5.5 million cap hit for three more seasons after the 2019-20 campaign, making him an unrestricted free agent in 2023. He should hit the 20-goal mark this season — he already has 14 in 45 games with Minnesota. Assuming he does, it’ll be his fifth 20-goal campaign in the last six seasons, including a 33-goal performance during the 2017-18 season.

Jason Zucker Minnesota Wild
Jason Zucker will immediately slot into the Penguins top-six alongside Sidney Crosby or Evgeni Malkin (Jess Starr/The Hockey Writers)

Rutherford and the Penguins know they need to continue pushing the chips in to extend the competition window with Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin. Zucker will make the team better down the stretch and give them one of the league’s strongest top-sixes for the next few seasons; the California native just turned 28 years old in January.

Initially, it sounds like Zucker will start on the top line alongside Crosby. Over the next few weeks, head coach Mike Sullivan will likely try him with Malkin as well to see where the better chemistry brews.

Zucker is a strong skater with good puck skills and a fast style of play. On paper, he seems like a perfect fit in the Penguins’ top-six. His 47.5 Corsi-For percentage (CF%) is one of the worst on the Wild this season, but placement on the Penguins stacked forward group should fix that pretty quickly. Not to mention, his personal CF% (51.5 percent) was over two percentage points better than the Wild’s team number (49.1 percent) from 2017-2019.

Unfortunately, Zucker also fits the Penguins’ theme of injuries this season. He missed 10 games in December and January with a broken leg. Since returning, he’s tallied five points in 11 games.

This trade looks a bit similar to one that Rutherford made just over a year ago, when the Penguins traded Derrick Brassard, Riley Sheahan, and picks to the Florida Panthers for Jared McCann and Nick Bjugstad on Feb. 1, 2019. Brassard, acquired a year prior, had suited up for just 54 games with Pittsburgh before heading to Florida.

Penguins Dish Top Prospect and Top Pick

As the Penguins’ top prospect, Addison was naturally the team’s biggest trade chip. A second-round pick in the 2018 NHL Entry Draft, the 19-year-old defenseman has racked up 10 goals and 43 points in 39 games with WHL Lethbridge this season. He was also a key member of Canada’s gold medal-winning World Juniors roster, scoring nine points in seven contests.

Calen Addison
Calen Addison was the Penguins’ top prospect (courtesy Lethbridge Hurricanes)

Addison is a strong skater with great hockey IQ and a knack for threading passes to his teammates in the offensive zone. He’s comfortable quarterbacking the power play and should be a staple on the Wild’s blue line for years to come.

As for Galchenyuk, he was more of a salary equalizer in this deal than a real asset. He scored just 17 points in 45 games with the Penguins and had been demoted to a bottom-line role; over the last eight games, the 25-year-old winger has just one assist while averaging 7:21 of ice time.

Like the Panthers did with Brassard, it wouldn’t be surprising to see the Wild try to flip Galcheyuk again before the deadline for a mid-round pick.

Barring a very unlikely deal that would net the Penguins a 2020 first-round pick, the team will be without a first-round selection for the fifth time in the last six years. That’s the price a franchise has to pay in order to keep pushing for a Stanley Cup run.

Jason Zucker
Will Zucker be enough to bring the Penguins their sixth Stanley Cup? (Amy Irvin / The Hockey Writers)

Trading the team’s top draft pick and top prospect may seem like a lot, but given Zucker’s fairly friendly contract, it makes sense for the Penguins right now. As usual, Rutherford beat the market rush and may have avoided an even greater price tag. Whether the 28-year-old winger spends more time with Crosby or Malkin, the team’s 5-on-5 offense should get a big boost here.