My Thoughts on the Penguins Acquiring Jason Zucker

Penguins GM Jim Rutherford finally pulled the trigger tonight, and acquired Jason Zucker from the Minnesota Wild. The price to add Zucker was Alex Galchenyuk, a conditional 2020 1st round pick (pick can slide to 2021 1st rounder if Penguins miss the playoffs this year), and the Penguins top prospect in defenseman Calen Addison. I’ll take a look at this deal from a few different angles below.

What the Penguins Acquired

It’s no secret GMJR has coveted Zucker for some time. Zucker would have been a Penguin this summer if Phil Kessel did not veto a trade to Minnesota, and instead going to Arizona. For those that aren’t aware, the Penguins have a pretty sound process when it comes to acquiring players. GMJR doesn’t just say, “I want this player. Let’s go get him.” If he identifies someone he thinks will be a team fit, he’ll send out his pro scouts to get their feedback on the player. He’ll talk to scouts, assistant GMs, analytics guys, etc within the organization. They do a lot of homework on the player outside the rink. The Penguins did their due diligence this summer, and went through the process again over the past month or so. They were very comfortable with the player they were getting.

One off ice concern for acquiring Zucker, that I’m sure the Penguins are well aware of, is the custody situation of Jason Zucker’s step-daughter Sophia. Sophia is the daughter of Zucker’s wife Carly, and Sophia’s father has custody rights. I do not know the full situation, but, it did come up last year when Zucker was in trade rumors. It may mean that Zucker’s family has to stay behind in Minnesota. The Penguins have usually been pretty good about these types of situations, and the Zucker’s are well aware that this is a business, and that a move was possible.

Onto the player, Zucker should be a very good fit in the Penguins system, and it is easy to see why GMJR has targeted him for some time. Over the summer, before Bryan Rust went el loco this season, I would have classified Zucker as a slightly more offensive Bryan Rust. Rust has good speed, is very sound defensively, and can contribute 15-20 goals, 40-50 points per season…at least, that was Rust’s profile this summer. Zucker is a similar type of player: speed, defense, consistent offense. The hope will be that Zucker will get 30 goal, 60 point level playing for a better Penguins team.

My bottom line on Zucker is he’s the next Brandon Tanev, which means, 80% of the fan base hates the acquisition and thinks the Penguins paid too much. The guy comes in, fits like a glove, and the last thing anybody complains about is the cost to acquire Jason Zucker. That is my hope, and, I don’t think it is far fetched.

The Cost to Acquire Jason Zucker

Boy, have I seen Penguins fans all over the board on Zucker’s worth. Some people said no way should Zucker cost a 1st round pick. Others said no way should Zucker cost a top prospect. Rumors earlier this week that the Penguins 2 top prospects, defenseman Calen Addison and forward Samuel Poulin were off limits. There have been reports that Rutherford had presented Guerin a standing deal before the All-Star break that Guerin could accept at any time. Nobody but Rutherford and Guerin know if that is true. A lot of people expected Nick Bjugstad to be going the other way in the deal, and conjecture is his inability to get healthy from core surgery forced the Penguins to go a different direction.

In the end, the Penguins purged Alex Galchenyuk and his cap hit, their 2020 1st round pick, and Calen Addison to acquire Zucker. Again, many fans are upset. This is too high of a cost. Zucker isn’t elite. Zucker is no better than a 3rd liner. But, there are several factors

  • Guerin didn’t “need” to trade Zucker now. He could have waited until the summer, when the playoffs were over and maybe an NHL roster player came back in the deal. Guerin had to get something of value, and only a 1st round pick was not going to cut it.
  • The Penguins prospect pool is very limited. They did a good job to add Addison, Poulin, Legare, Hallander, and Pierre-Olivier Joseph over the past few years, but, that still pales in comparison to what other teams could offer. The Athletic ranked the Penguins system 28th out of 31 teams. The Penguins have 3-4 top guys, and a bunch of average prospects. They don’t have anything in the tier between.
  • Zucker has 3 more years on his deal. Some see that as a bad thing, but, consider this: If the Penguins went after Chris Kreider, there is a good chance the cost would have been the same with the bidding war that will ensure for his services. If you are going give up your 1st and top prospect, it better be for more than a 3-4 month rental that walks at seasons end.
  • The Penguins will have a chance to recoup some assets this summer via trade (more on this in a bit).
  • John Marino again has made another player expendable. Marino’s exceptional play this season already all but guarantees Justin Schultz walks as a free agent this summer. Marino’s strong play likely also meant the Penguins are comfortable with Marino already cemented in the lineup, that Addison (at least 1-2 years away from the NHL), could be moved.

Bottom line here is, if this was the Penguins top target…and you can go back and check my posts from 2 plus months ago where I said I had a strong feeling Zucker winds up a Penguin…you have to give to get the player you want. With giving up the 1st AND Addison, and without a 2nd of their own, I would have liked to have seen the Wild’s 2020 2nd come back to Pittsburgh in the deal. Guerin had to get something in return that motivated him to deal. With a high AAV Suter, new deal for Spurgeon, and different rumors on Dumba and Brodin, maybe Addison starts in the AHL, and pushes his way onto the Wild roster by mid-season.

Zucker, The Trade Deadline, and THIS Season

So, what is the immediate gain by adding Zucker. To start, Sid can have a competent winger on his line. We know Sid likes playing with Dominik Simon, but Simon isn’t much of a finisher. Neither is Patric Hornqvist. I attended the Penguins game in South Florida Saturday against the Panthers, and, Simon and Hornqvist need Sid to generate the offense, and the shots, to score. Guentzel had the ability to create on his own. Sid needs a better finisher with him, and Zucker will help. I can’t really conjecture on lines, because it remains to be seen if McCann will still slot in as a top 6 winger, or if they move him to 3C, or if they move Hornqvist down the lineup. Dominik Kahun will likely miss tomorrow’s game against Tampa, but my guess is he plays Friday against Montreal. When Kahun and Bjugstad return, lines should look something like this

  • Zucker-Crosby-Simon
  • McCann-Malkin-Rust
  • Kahun-Bjugstad-Hornqvist
  • ZAR-Blueger-Tanev

That’s a pretty solid lineup, and would look even better if the Penguins make a deep playoff run and get Jake Guentzel back.

So, what else should the Penguins do at the deadline. I’d like to see them add a depth forward. I mentioned earlier today Zemgus Girgensons of Buffalo is a UFA that Penguins should look at. He can slot in the bottom 6, and he’d be an upgrade over dressing Agozzino, Angello, or Blandisi. Girgensons can give them some experienced depth. Girgenson’s fiance/wife is from the Pittsburgh area, and he practiced with the Penguins the last 2 summers. A 5th or 6th rounder should be plenty enough to acquire him.

I’d also look to add a depth defenseman. It appears obvious that Sullivan has soured on Jusso Riikola. Before the Mario injury, Sullivan went with 2 RHD in Ruhwedel-Schultz on the 3rd pairing, making Ruhwedel play his off side, rather than dress Riikola. There were a few teams interested in Riikola this year. He has RFA rights, and as a 25-26 year old who came from Europe, he doesn’t seem to have much of a future with the Penguins. Send Riikola out for a depth defenseman and a late round pick…a Trevor Daley, Michael Del Zotto, Andy Greene type.

With the Zucker move, and those 2 additional depth moves, the Penguins should be set for the stretch run and the playoffs.

Zucker, the Summer, and Beyond

When you acquire a player with term, that is going to have an impact on the cap beyond this season. In the past 30 days, the Penguins have added 9.5M in salary by acquiring Zucker and signing Marcus Petterson to a 4M+ AAV contract. Justin Schultz is almost a certainty not to return, unless he takes significantly less money than he makes today, which isn’t likely. The Penguins still need to resign Jared McCann, Dominik Kahun, Dominik Simon and….Tristan Jarry and Matt Murray.

They don’t have the cap room to resign all of their RFAs, and, as crazy as it sounds, even if Matt Murray guides the Penguins to a 3rd Stanley Cup this season, I don’t see how the Penguins can afford to keep him. At a minimum, he’s going to need 6M AAV. That would be the John Gibson level deal. More than likely, he’s looking for 7-8M+ AAV, and, that just won’t work with the contracts the Penguins have. The Penguins also can’t keep Murray, Jarry, and DeSmith. Jarry has had a breakout season. He’s an NHL starter. He will not be content sitting behind Matt Murray as the backup. You also have the Seattle expansion draft the following year to contend with.

GM Jim Rutherford’s refusal to negotiate with any RFAs (except Pettersson who he already had a deal worked out with in August before cap issues forced a 1 year deal) is a telling sign to me. The smart play, in my opinion, is move Murray this summer. Goalies don’t get a huge return, but, 2 time Cup winning goalies under 30 don’t go on the market very often either. If GMJR can secure a 1st/2nd and/or a high level prospect or two and recoup some of the assets he lost in the Zucker trade, the trade looks that much better. And make no mistake, even without the Zucker trade, this goalie issue was looming large this summer.

Final Words

I like the deal. Like Tanev, this is a guy the team had targeted as being a good fit. If it works out as good as Tanev has so far, a lot of people will be eating some crow. If it doesn’t work out, the Zucker deal isn’t an albatross that couldn’t be moved down the road. I don’t think this year and the playoffs will be the deciding factor on fit. But, I do think this will work out very well for the Penguins. The 1st round pick almost assuredly wouldn’t have ever suited up with Crosby/Malkin, and, with Marino’s emergence and the ability to recoup some assets by trading Murray this summer, trading Addison was worth it.

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