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Bill Guerin’s choice about Jason Zucker will be interesting to watch unfold

Can the Penguins finally get their man in Minnesota forward Jason Zucker?

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Pittsburgh Penguins v Minnesota Wild Photo by Bruce Kluckhohn/NHLI via Getty Images

Since Bill Guerin was hired late in the summer after the draft and the July 1 free agent rush, he has made a grand total of zero trades. Zip. Zero. Stingy with deniro. Clearly the first half of the season he wasn’t in a panic to try and shake things up and wanted to get time to acclimate to what he had on the roster, and give the players some time to show what they could or couldn’t do. Probably a wise move, since other teams would have been looking to poach and make a devastating deal that might have set them back even further.

But now as the trade deadline approaches in now less than six weeks and the prospect of the Wild making the playoffs is quickly fading, it’s going to be time for Guerin to start putting his stamp on his team by making a move. As Michael Russo writes in The Athletic, Guerin’s first decisions are going to be very important, and very telling about what direction the Wild will head.

It’ll be interesting because Guerin has said all season that the one thing he has learned is that some of his players are heavily sought by other teams and have value.

One player who may receive a lot of interest now that he’s back playing is Zucker, who was the Wild’s second-leading scorer at the time of his Dec. 15 broken leg.

The Penguins, Guerin’s former employer, open their midseason meetings Monday in Pittsburgh. They recently lost Jake Guentzel for the season and, if you recall, they pursued Zucker in a Phil Kessel deal last June.

It would have been a done deal if Kessel would have waived his no-trade clause to come to Minnesota, and it would not be surprising in the least if Penguins GM Jim Rutherford still has interest.

Regardless of what Guerin does, Sunday’s game was just the latest in a disappointing stretch.

Zucker to the Penguins would be very intriguing, the soon-to-be 28-year old winger has three more seasons after this one with a $5.5 million cap hit. He’s a player typically with good under-lying metrics, good speed and a reliable 20+ goal scorer in a given season if healthy.

Is this an instance where the Wild take a flyer on Alex Galchenyuk (who originally is from nearby Milwaukee) on a half season tryout and to consider re-signing? That, plus some futures would make balance.

Or does Guerin see Zucker as part of the solution? Guerin’s problem is that many of his aging vets (Parise, Suter, Zuccarello) have full no movement clauses and are basically unmoveable. If he wants to get younger and cheaper, moving Zucker.

For the Penguins, Zucker is clearly an intriguing option to them. Here’s how he stacks up on Bill Comeau’s SKATR chart since the start of 2018 compared to Tyler Toffoli, another potential trade candidate.

Both of these players would probably be good fits in the Pens’ top six. The biggest trait that stands out to me is both shoot the puck a lot and have a solid game score, indicating that they are strong contributors. Zucker is a more well-rounded point and goal scorer in recent times.

On the salary cap, Zucker would require some juggling, but nothing too extreme. The Pens have $60.1 million spoken for in future contracts for the 2020-21 season. The salary cap this year is $81.5 million, and it always takes a step forward — though unpredictably so. Pittsburgh has some young players that will be given raises (Jared McCann, Dominik Kahun, Marcus Pettersson) but will also waive goodbye to expensive veterans (Galchenyuk, Justin Schultz). There’s a goalie situation to figure out, and who knows how that plays out, but both Matt Murray and Tristan Jarry are restricted free agents, which typically means favorable outcomes for the team (see eventual contract agreements to Bryan Rust and Brian Dumoulin).

Without getting too off-season math-y, fitting Zucker’s $5.5 million would not be that much a challenge for Pittsburgh. Salary cap math almost always adds up, as it did for the Pens this year when they were in MUCH more of a pickle and still found a way to get everyone they wanted under the cap.

They have options to move around the board — maybe Teddy Blueger can slot in as full time third line center and make Nick Bjugstad redundant. Maybe Juuso Riikola can be a top-six regular and the team can look to end the Jack Johnson era. There’s plenty of options!

For now though, the focus has to be filling the sizeable hole in the lineup left by Jake Guentzel and his injuries. A well-rounded player like Zucker fits the bill for Pittsburgh.

The market for wingers situationally might not be as great for the Pens at it looks on the surface. Considering that the Kings reportedly want a second rounder for Toffoli (and the Pens don’t have a 2020 second rounder, and Boston does) that might be a miss for Pittsburgh. The Rangers may elect to keep Chris Kreider, or at the least not trade him to a division rival, so that could be a miss. For all the chatter around Brandon Saad, he’s a player Chicago loves and may not be interested in moving right now.

Add that all together, and a player like Zucker becomes even more desirable, if available.

The big question comes back to just what Bill Guerin will decide to do with him, and just how big of a price that Pittsburgh might be willing to pay to make it happen