This is the Jason Zucker the Pittsburgh Penguins wanted to add to their staff three years ago.
The guy whose passion and sweat seem to know no bounds. Who can score goals on a fairly regular basis? Who predicts with the ferocity of an enraged digger and does not hesitate to throw himself into opponents.
One who can be counted on to make an impact, literally and otherwise, in almost every game.
Oh, it was never a matter of attitude or intangibles. Zucker’s style here has always been as relentless and fearless as it was when he played in Minnesota, but more about his ability to stay healthy. Or, rather, his inability to do so.
Zuker is not a particularly big person. he’s listed as 5-foot-11, 192 pounds, but that reality seems to have eluded him during his 11-plus seasons. he attacks the game like a guy four inches taller and 20 pounds heavier.
Just ask Vancouver forward Connor Garland, who Zucker nearly obliterated — or at least on Center Avenue — with a devastating check at PPG Paints Arena last Tuesday. That one should have been recorded on North American seismographs.
Zucker’s physicality and strong offensive output (10 goals and 16 assists in 38 games) make him a good fit for this team, and since he doesn’t turn 31 until Monday, he could effectively fill a top-six spot here at least a few times. more seasons.
That should be especially attractive to management given that, wisely or otherwise, it has committed itself to another Stanley Cup run in the next few years by re-signing Evgeni Malkin, Kris Letang, Bryan Rust and Rickard Rakell. last summer
Now GM Ron Hextall faces a similar decision with Zucker, who is set to be an unrestricted free agent after this season.
Zucker’s current deal with the Wild carries a salary of $5.5 million, and it’s not unreasonable to believe he’ll get a raise if he hits the open market.
How much cap space Hextall is able to give Zucker will affect other personnel moves and decisions that have yet to be made, but if Zucker expresses a genuine interest in staying here, the sides can likely negotiate their way to common ground. .
While a significant portion of the fan base has lobbied for Zucker to be traded over the past few years, public and press sentiment now appears to have shifted in favor of keeping him.
Given how Zucker has performed so far in 2022-23. it’s completely understandable. Frankly, it’s hard to imagine a scenario in which the Pittsburgh Penguins would be better off this season without his salary.
Given everything Zucker does when he’s in the draft, making a serious effort to surround him seems perfectly logical. Especially when he seems to be so well-liked by his teammates and such a positive force in the locker room.
However, it is not that simple.
When pondering the merits of trying to re-sign Zucker, there are two key words that cannot be overlooked. Caveat Emptor:. (No, it’s not the European quarterback Nashville drafted in the second round a few years ago.)
Of course, there is an element of risk in making a commitment to any athlete in a contact sport. Torn ligaments. Shoulders are dislocated. Brains are shaking.
Purveyors of violent entertainment pay a physical toll.
And guys like Zucker who play bigger than their vital statistics suggest they often have to pay the ultimate price.
Zucker showed just how valuable he can be this season when he dressed in 38 of the first 42 games for the Pittsburgh Penguins.
That’s after two seasons in which just staying in the lineup was a big challenge for him.
Zucker missed 59 of 138 games the previous two seasons, 18 of 56 in 2020-21 and 41 of 82 in 2021-22, and his injuries, like a core muscle problem that was operated on, they generally reflected his playing style.
Which means that what makes him such an important member of this team is what could make keeping him around for a few more seasons such a bet.
Warning signs, like those rooted in Zucker’s injury history, come with no guarantees, but ignoring them can be dangerous.
Witness the Penguins’ decision to sign Jeff Carter to a two-year contract last Jan. 26, even though he was a few weeks shy of his 37th birthday.
Carter has looked experienced, not old, since arriving from Los Angeles, but his production has declined since his new contract; he had 12 goals and 14 assists in 36 games last season before being re-signed, but only 14 goals and 17 assists. started in 79 games, and it’s conceivable that Hextall will try to replace him as the Pittsburgh Penguins’ No. 3 center.
Carter’s case illustrates what can happen when a decision is made that risk factors outweigh other considerations.
That’s why figuring out whether to aggressively pursue a new deal with Zucker will be one of the many personnel issues facing Hexall in the coming weeks and months.