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Is Jason Zucker Worth the Money?

by Justin Ives

Photo courtesy of The Hockey Writers.

Unrestricted free agent and Pittsburgh Penguins winger, Jason Zucker, has been with the team for over three years now with mixed results. When he plays, he’s a force and strong complement alongside center Evgeni Malkin. But Zucker has proven to be injury prone, missing large parts of seasons over his stretch with the team. Starved for talent and with a demonstrable need at the position, the Pens face some hard decisions, peering down the barrel of very real salary cap issues. Should the Penguins re-sign him or let him walk?

Let’s take a look.

How did the Penguins acquire Zucker? In the middle of the 2019-20 season the Penguins needed a boost to the roster for a playoff push and potential run at the cup. At the time, GM, Jim Rutherford, made the decision to trade for a goal scoring winger to play on one of their top two lines.

Enter Jason Zucker. To acquire him, the Pens had to move forward Alex Galchenyuk, defenseman Calen Addison, and a first round draft pick.

Was the juice worth the squeeze?

Galchenyuk currently plays in the AHL, and Addison still plays for the Wild where he has put up 33 points over 80 career games. That first round pick was the 26th of the first round and was used to take defenseman, Carson Lambos. Lambos is currently playing in the WHL as a prospect for the Wild. It’s safe to say the jury is still out but Zucker has brought value when he’s available.

Zucker’s performance on the ice for the Penguins has been good to great at times, but he’s struggled to stay on the ice. Over the past 3 seasons (not counting the year he was acquired), Zucker has missed a total of 63 games, which is over a fourth of the games played during his time in Pittsburgh. When on the ice, Zucker scores at a pace of roughly 24 goals per 82 games. His 27 goals last season tied him for 4th on the team with Malkin and was ahead of Rust who took a step back this year after getting a team friendly contract extension.

Looking at the Pens' salary cap situation, the chances of keeping Zucker, who looks to make $7 million per year on the free market (especially after having a good and healthy year last year) are bleak. As of today, the Penguins have 15 out of 23 roster spots signed for this upcoming year but they have used up almost 75% of their available cap space.

Trade deadline acquisition, Mikael Granlund, is scheduled to make $6 million a year for this upcoming year and next. If the Penguins are able to move Granlund, that would potentially free enough space to make a competitive offer to Zucker—or at least make more breathing room when filling out the roster.

And then there’s the problem of goalkeeper. The Pens only have backup goalie, Casey DeSmith, under contract for 2023, with starter and oft-injured, Tristan Jarry, hitting the free agent market. Any new GM will likely address this hole in the roster first before dealing with the Zucker possibilities.

While Zucker is a crucial goal scorer and a top 6 forward for the team, the Pens will likely lose his services, unable to commit to a potential bidding war.

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