What should the Penguins do with Zucker?
A few months ago, it all seemed pretty simple, and perfectly logical, for the Pittsburgh Penguins.
Jason Zucker was entering the final year of his contract, which carries a $5.5 million salary cap hit, and general manager Ron Hextall seemed to have precious little reason to offer him another.
After all, Zucker had been a top-six pick when he was acquired from Minnesota on February 10, 2020, but had just 23 goals and 24 assists in 94 games over his first two seasons with the Penguins.
Even more troubling was that, after dressing for the 15 games he was here before the pandemic aborted the 2019-20 season, injuries forced Zucker to miss 18 of 56 games in 2020-21 and 41 of 82 last season.
Not meeting offensive expectations is bad enough; fair or not, a player who has to sit out so many games because of physical issues, like Zucker’s core muscle problem that had to be surgically repaired, could be even more of a concern for decision makers a team
For those reasons, when this season began, Zucker seemed like a good candidate to move on, either because another club was interested in adding him, or because the Penguins would simply choose to try to re-sign him when his contract expired . next summer
It was nothing personal. Zucker’s commitment and work ethic have never been questioned, and are likely part of the reason he seems to be so well-liked and respected by his teammates and coaches.
But professional hockey is a bottom line business, and the Penguins weren’t getting much of a return on the investment they made in acquiring Zucker from Minnesota, a first-round pick, defenseman prospect Calen Addison and forward Alex Galchenyuk. the salary they paid him.
And then the first quarter of the 2022-23 season happened. Suddenly, nothing about Zucker’s future is as obvious as it seemed earlier this fall.
Yes, he’s missed two of the Pittsburgh Penguins’ first 19 games, but he’s also thrived alongside Evgeni Malkin on the No. 2 line.
While Zucker wasn’t a big part of Chicago’s 5-3 win on Sunday, he was credited with just one shot and was on the ice for just one goal, scored by the Blackhawks forward. Philip Kurashev — He has been visible and productive far more often than not.
He has five goals and 10 assists in 17 games, which puts him just behind Sidney CrosbyJake Guentzel and Malkin in the scoring race as a team, and his speed and relentlessness make him an excellent predictor.
And while his fearless style can certainly increase the risk of missed-time injuries for a guy who’s 5-foot-11, 192 pounds, Zucker is only 30 years old, suggesting he could be in his prime for several more years.
Now, 19 games is an extremely small sample size, a lot can and will likely change as this season unfolds, but Zucker’s strong start could certainly be bothersome for Hextall as he tries to figure out how to approach the long-term future. Zucker term.
Treat him as a guy who can’t be counted on because injuries will keep him out of the lineup so often, or as one who can reasonably be expected to generate about a point per game for quite a while?
And, of course, there are other things to consider, most notably the impact Zucker’s retention would have on the Pittsburgh Penguins’ salary cap situation.
He is one of six players currently on their major league roster scheduled to qualify for unrestricted free agency in 2023; the others are Tristan Jarry, Teddy Blueger, Danton Heinen, Josh Archibald and Brian Dumoulin, and there’s reason to believe Hextall will try to retain most of them.
The details of the NHL’s salary cap range for 2023-24 could have a profound impact on whether he is able to do so.
The Penguins are believed to have about $63.5 million committed to players now on their roster. and league officials have projected at least a $4 million increase in the cap if the players’ guaranteed debt to the league is paid off this season. If not, the significant cap increase would come in 2024-25 and increase $1 million from its 2022-23 level of $82.5 million.
If/when the ceiling rises significantly, it could make a lot of things possible, for a lot of teams.
Hextall will also have to evaluate the stable of possible replacements if Zucker were to leave, regardless of who the decision was. That means evaluating free agents who don’t re-sign with their clubs before the summer, as well as players currently in the Pittsburgh Penguins’ prospect pipeline.
At least in the short term, there are few, if any, viable top six forwards. And nobody on the Penguins’ third and fourth lines can currently be expected to replace Zucker for an extended period, let alone permanently.
Keep in mind that Hextall could always try to trade for a second-line left back, but as Minnesota’s asking price for Zucker showed, they don’t come cheap.
Two months ago, it seemed like this option was one he would have to explore, and perhaps still will.
But it’s also quite conceivable that Zucker remains effective and productive, which implicitly means being healthy enough to stay in the lineup, and persuade Hextall that he should be a part of the franchise’s future well beyond next spring