What should the penguins do with Zucker?

A few months ago, everything seemed so simple – and completely logical – for the Pittsburgh Penguins.

Jason Zucker was entering the final year of his contract — the year that carries the $5.5 million salary cap — and it seemed like general manager Ron Heckstall had good reason to supply him with another one.

After all, Zucker was drafted into the top six when he was acquired from Minnesota on February 10, 2020, but he only had 23 goals and 24 assists in 94 games during his first two seasons with the Penguins.

Even more troubling is that after dressing in all 15 games he was in 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.

Failing to meet abusive expectations is bad enough; Fair or not, a player who has to sit out many games due to physical issues, such as a problem with Zucker’s heart muscles that had to be surgically repaired, may be more of a headache to the team’s decision-makers.

For these reasons, when he started this season, Zucker seemed a good candidate going forward, whether it was because another team was interested in adding him, or because the Penguins would simply choose not to try to re-sign him when his contract expired. next summer.

It wasn’t anything personal. Zucker’s commitment and work ethic have never been questioned, and are likely part of the reason he is so well-liked and respected by his teammates and coaches.

But professional hockey is an essential business, and the Penguins weren’t getting much return on the investment they made in acquiring Minnesota Zucker — a first-round draft pick, potential defenseman Kalin Addison and forward Alex Galcheniuk — or on the salary they were paying him.

Then the first quarter of the 2022-23 season happened. Suddenly, nothing about Zucker’s future is as clear as it seemed in early fall.

Yes, he missed the first 19 games for the Pittsburgh Penguins, but he’s also managed to thrive alongside Evgeni Malkin on the No. 2 line.

Although Zucker wasn’t a huge factor during their 5-3 win in Chicago on Sunday — he was credited with just one shot, and was on the ice for just one, which was scored by the Blackhawks forward. Philip Kurachev – It was often visible and productive.

He has five goals and 10 assists in 17 games, which only puts him behind Sidney CrosbyJake Guentzel and Malkin are in the team’s scoring race, and his speed and determination make him an excellent checker.

And while his gritty style can certainly increase the risk of lost-time injuries for a 5-foot-11, 192-pound man, Zucker is only 30 years old, which suggests he could be in his prime for several more years.

Now, 19 games with a very small sample size — a lot that’s possible, and likely to change as this season begins — but Zucker’s solid start certainly could be troublesome for Heckstall as he tries to decide how to handle Zucker’s long-term future.

Treat him like a man who can’t be relied on because injuries will keep him out of the lineup more often, or like someone who can reasonably be expected to generate a point almost every game for an extended period?

Of course, there are other things to consider, most notably the impact of retaining Zucker on the Pittsburgh Penguins’ salary cap situation.

He’s one of six players currently on the major league roster slated to qualify for unrestricted free agency in 2023 — the others being Tristan Jarry, Teddy Plowger, Danton Heinen, Josh Archibald And Brian Dumoulin – and there’s reason to believe Hextall will try to keep most of them.

The details of the NHL’s salary cap range for 2023-24 could have a profound impact on whether he’s able to do so.

The Penguins are believed to have about $63.5 million earmarked for the players they are now on their list. League officials projected an increase of at least $4 million in the cap if player guarantee debts to the league are paid off this season. If not, the big cap hike will come in 2024-25 and $1 million will be up from its level in 2022-23 of $82.5 million.

If/when the ceiling is raised significantly, it can make a lot of things possible, for a lot of difference.

Hextall will also have to assess the stability of potential replacements if Zucker leaves, regardless of his decision. 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’ pipeline of prospects.

In the short term at least, there are few, if any, top six attackers out there. And no one currently in the third and fourth lines of the Zucker Penguins can be expected to fill in for long, let alone permanently.

Keep in mind Hextall can always try to trade in a left winger from the second line, but as Zucker’s Minnesota asking price has shown, they don’t come cheap.

A couple of months ago, that seemed like an option he might have to explore, and probably still is.

But it’s also envisaged that Zucker will continue to be effective and productive – which is implied to be healthy enough to stay in the lineup – and convince Hextall that he should be part of the franchise’s future after next spring.

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