Pittsburgh Penguins: Jason Zucker could be the missing piece

The inevitable has finally happened. That’s right, the Pittsburgh Penguins finally got their man in Jason Zucker.

Pittsburgh Penguins general manager Jim Rutherford has been in pursuit of Jason Zucker since last spring. Last night, he finally got his man. In return, the Penguins sent top defense prospect Calen Addison, Alex Galchenyuk, and a 2020 first-round pick to the Minnesota Wild.

That price may sound steep, but I think the Penguins got the better end of this deal. The Wild are really banking on Addison panning out. The first-round pick will likely be in the later portions of the round and the chances are slim of that pick becoming a high-end player. As Evolving Hockey points out, Galchenyuk has been abysmal this season.

Seven weeks ago, I wrote about why the Penguins should pursue Zucker. The fit just made too much sense. Zucker is signed through the 2022.23 season, with an AAV of 5.5M. Provided that he stays healthy and they continue to qualify for the playoffs, the Penguins will get four playoff runs with Zucker.

Per Natural Stat Trick, of the 415 skaters to play a minimum of 2,000 minutes the last three seasons, Zucker ranks 39th in even-strength shots per 60 with 9.01.

Over that same timespan, Zucker has generated more individual scoring chances per hour than high-profile players Mitch Marner, Nikolaj Ehlers, and Steven Stamkos.

Zucker’s individual expected goals for per hour of 0.84 is tied with Jake Guentzel. While I’m not suggesting Zucker has that kind of finishing ability, he is a very good offensive player.

Zucker has scored 20 goals four times and is on pace to do so again this season. He will benefit from a quality of teammate boost in Pittsburgh as well. Due to that and his north/south style of play, 30 goals for Zucker is within the realm of possibility in a full-season role in the Penguins top-six.

From a possession standpoint, Zucker has been above average throughout this career. He has a positive impact on both shot generation and suppression. Combining that with his speed and finishing ability, and he should be a seamless fit alongside Sidney Crosby. As Stathletes co-founder Meghan Chayka pointed out over the weekend, Zucker also has a very positive impact in terms of expected goals for when he is on an odd-man rush.

If and when the forwards get healthy, having Jake Guentzel, Bryan Rust, and Jason Zucker will ensure that Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin each get an elite winger. The Penguins top-six forwards are in really, really good shape for the next three seasons.

Sean Tierney of Charting Hockey feels the Penguins are the big winners in this deal.

We have another Jim Rutherford trend. He has a tendency to trade first-round picks for forwards with term. The majority of the time, there is nothing wrong with that. In deals to acquire David Perron, Phil Kessel, Ryan Reaves, Derick Brassard, and Jason Zucker, Rutherford has traded the first-rounder. At the time of these trades, I was behind 4 of the 5, with Reaves being the obvious exception.

The emergence of John Marino ultimately made Addison expandable. At 19 years old, Addison is a talented offensive defenseman. He was the power-play quarterback for Team Canada for the World Juniors. He can move the puck at an above-average rate. There is a lot to like about him. He is the key to this deal for Minnesota.

For Pittsburgh, the time is now. That will remain the case for the next 2 to 3 years. Crosby and Malkin are still chugging along at an elite level. The Penguins Stanley Cup window is right now. Addison was at least two years away from making this roster. The windows just didn’t align, and Rutherford used him as a trade chip. I have no qualms with that. When you have two generational talents, you go all in to win another championship.

For those who are upset about losing a top prospect in Addison (I am not one of them) the Penguins are likely going to be trading a goalie before the June 2021 expansion draft. If, who, and when that might happen is anyone’s guess. But they can likely acquire an NHL defender (if need be) by moving a goalie down the line.

Next: One Player Each Team Should Trade

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With this deal, the best team in the Metropolitan Division just got better. They got better for both the short and long-term. The trade deadline is only 13 days away and as Cap Friendly points out, Pittsburgh has 4.2 million dollars in cap space. I would not be surprised to see Jim Rutherford make another move or two. Although it’s unlikely, if Jake Guentzel can return this spring, these Penguins will be an even tougher out. Thanks for reading!

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