The Pittsburgh Penguins need to get creative this offseason if they are going to make any significant changes to their roster. General manager Ron Hextall has some serious work to do and one player he needs to find a way to move on from is forward Jason Zucker.
The 29-year-old winger was brought over from the Minnesota Wild and has been underwhelming ever since. At $5.5 million on the cap, there’s pressure for Zucker to perform, but unfortunately that hasn’t necessarily been the case, especially this past season. In his first showcase with the Penguins in 2019-20, he recorded 12 points in 15 games, but in 2020-21 his production slipped. The California-native recorded only nine goals in 38 games, finishing the season with a dismal 18 points.
Won’t Be Easy to Complete a Deal
With a flat salary cap and an expansion draft looming, it’s certainly an interesting time across the NHL, so completing a trade has become harder for executives. Hextall will need to not only find a suitor for Zucker, but may need to either sweeten the pot, or retain a tiny bit of salary, which a cap-crunched Penguins team doesn’t necessarily want any part of. Unfortunately, that’s likely going to be the cost of doing business here.
The trade that landed Zucker with the Penguins was an expensive one. While Alex Galchenyuk didn’t do anything in Pittsburgh, the team also lost defensive prospect Calen Addison and their 2020 or 2021 first-round pick. Wild general manager Bill Guerin decided to defer to this year’s draft, so now the Penguins are stuck without a selection in the first round thanks to former general manager Jim Rutherford’s transaction.
Considering the price tag, it’s not an easy pill to swallow to now move Zucker, which may be why the team is a touch reluctant. However, Hextall shouldn’t be and even though the versatile winger can play a heavier game than his 5-foot-11 frame, he’s not the prototypical winger the general manager is looking for on his second line. Ideally, Zucker is replaced by someone with more size who can not only intimidate teams, but produce results offensively. Unfortunately, those types of players don’t grow on trees. Regardless, Penguins management needs to explore a trade and be willing to accept less than face value and much less than the return the Wild received a year and a half ago.
Biggest Issue is Dollars and Cents with Penguins
The Penguins currently have just over $3 million in cap space heading into the offseason and several holes to fill on their roster. While the expansion draft is upcoming, the team isn’t expected to lose anyone with a huge ticket. The team is likely set up in a way that most of their unprotected players are either depth forwards or expensive defensemen with dwindling value. There’s one scenario where Zucker is likely to stay in Pittsburgh and that’s if the Seattle Kraken select forward Jared McCann and his $2.94 million contract for next season. While it’s not a ton of money to work with, the biggest issue here would be the gaping hole created on the left wing. Throwing away Zucker afterwards may not be the smartest idea, but if McCann stays in town, the former should be moved.
Chemistry Wasn’t Apparent with Evgeni Malkin
With Jake Guentzel and Bryan Rust glued to Sidney Crosby, Zucker spent most the season on the wing of Malkin on Pittsburgh’s second line. The two never clicked and at times it was hard to watch as the frustration grew for both players.
Zucker hadn’t done much to start the season with only seven points in his first 17 games and then suffered a leg injury on Feb. 23. It was obvious upon his return that the coaching staff was concerned about his limited production as his ice time was all over the place. The break in the season really set him back, and especially with the chemistry aspect with Malkin. It’s takes repetition and familiarity to build chemistry and the two had a hard time creating the bond. This is another reason the Penguins need to find a trade for Zucker — he doesn’t fit well with Malkin on the second line.
Penguins management has informed everyone they are committed to the core of this team moving forward. This means Malkin is in line for a contract extension and will be occupying the second-line center spot in Pittsburgh for the foreseeable future. If that’s the plan and things aren’t working well with Zucker, why not move on?
Zucker is beloved by his teammates and any move is going to be a shakeup in the dressing room. Regardless, it needs to happen to benefit the Penguins next season and beyond, on and off the ice. After disappointing back-to-back campaigns for the team they have limited trade chips, however, they have a decent one in Zucker. His salary is currently outweighing his production and the team needs to find ways to create more flexibility financially in order to reshape the roster the way management wants to. Sometimes this business is a numbers game and unfortunately for Zucker with the Penguins, it’s just not adding up.