The Penguins were prioritizing a top-six winger at the trade deadline even before Jake Guentzel’s shoulder surgery put him on a four-to-six month recovery timeline. Monday, they went out and got the one they’ve been coveting – and they paid for him.
Jason Zucker, who the Penguins tried to acquire for Phil Kessel last summer in a deal Kessel vetoed, is headed to Pittsburgh. Heading to Minnesota are the Penguins’ first-round draft pick in 2020 (or 2021 in the unlikely event they miss the playoffs this year), forward Alex Galchenyuk and highly touted prospect Calen Addison.
The Penguins were likely always going to part with their first-round pick this year. The 2019-20 Penguins have been more impacted by injuries – not just in number of man-games lost, but to quality players – than any other team, yet sit just four points behind the Washington Capitals for first place in the competitive Metro Division, with two fewer games played. For an organization that has a win-now mentality every year, this year’s team has proven worth the investment.
Parting with Addison is a surprise. A second-round pick (53rd overall) in 2018, he helped Canada to gold in the world juniors last month with nine points in seven games. He’s an offensive defenseman and was one of Pittsburgh’s top prospects. Minnesota Wild GM Bill Guerin, of course, knows the Penguins’ system well from his time as assistant GM of the big club and GM of their Wilkes-Barre/Scranton AHL affiliate.
Galchenyuk, heading to the fourth team of his sixth-year career, was acquired from Arizona last summer as part of the eventual Kessel trade, but could never make an impact in Pittsburgh. He struggled through injuries and inconsistency, putting up only five goals and 12 assists in 45 games.
If it seems like the Penguins gave up a lot to get their man, well, they’re happy to have him, and not just for this season. Signed through 2022-23, Zucker, 28, is not a rental. He’ll provide a 1-2 punch down the Penguins’ left side even after Guentzel returns, at an annual cap hit of $5.5 million.
“Jason Zucker is a top-six forward that we think will be a great fit for our group,” Rutherford said. “He’s a proven goal scorer and, with three more years on his current contract, he has the potential to make an impact for us moving forward.”
The 5-foot-11, 192-pound winger has good speed and scoring ability with 243 points (132G, 111A) in 456 NHL games, all with Minnesota. His career highs in goals, assists and points all came in 2017-18. Last year, he won the King Clancy humanitarian trophy for charitable efforts that he and wife Carly have made throughout the region during his tenure with the Wild.
Zucker arrives at a time when the Penguins could use some reinforcements.
They’ve gone 3-1 since the All-Star break, but the wins – all by one goal over Philadelphia, Washington and Florida – were all examples of the Penguins finding ways to win when they frequently weren’t at their best. The power play has struggled, reminders of last season’s sloppy defensive play have started to creep back into their game and, at times, they’ve simply looked like the injuries are starting to catch up with them.
It didn’t help when they lost star rookie defenseman John Marino in their only loss since the break – 4-2 to the Tampa Bay Lightning – when a Steven Stamkos one-timer deflected into his face. Marino had surgery Monday to repair facial bone fractures and is expected to miss three to six weeks.
That’s a major loss for a team already missing its best defensive defenseman in Brian Dumoulin, who still hasn’t resumed skating after ankle surgery Dec. 1. Forward Nick Bjugstad, recovering from core muscle surgery since mid-November, is in the same boat, while forward Dominik Kahun is skating on his own as a step in his return from a concussion.
“There’s an opportunity for other guys to step up, and that’s been the mindset all year,” said head coach Mike Sullivan. “Regardless of the position, when injuries occur, it’s going to provide opportunities for others to step up and continue to help move this team forward.”
“We’ve got some experience at that this year, guys having to fill different roles and play different minutes or more minutes or whatever the case is,” said captain Sidney Crosby. “We’ve been through it and we’ll find a way.”
The Penguins hope Zucker will be in uniform Tuesday night, when the Penguins host the Lightning in the first of a four-game homestand. As for the rest of the lineup, the next-man-up mentality will continue to apply, as it has all season. It’s really the only choice they have.
“At different times we’ve gotten big plays from everybody in the lineup, and that’s what you need to do in that type of situation,” Crosby said. “You don’t have time to feel sorry for yourself or look for excuses. We’ve got to continue to find ways; it’s just going to get more and more challenging as the season goes along.”