Jim Rutherford finally got him,
After months of rumors, speculation, and one vetoed attempt at acquiring Jason Zucker, the Pittsburgh Penguins finally acquired him this week when they sent Alex Galchencyuk, top prospect Calen Addison, and a conditional first-round draft pick to the Minnesota Wild for the speedy winger.
It is a deal that makes sense on every possible level for the Penguins, in both the short-and long-term outlooks.
Short-term, they simply needed this
As I wrote on Monday, the Penguins’ overall process and results were not exactly matching up in recent weeks. The wins were still there, but the manner in which they were getting them was a bit of a concern. The injuries to Jake Guentzel and Dominik Kahun not only took away two of the team’s top wingers — with those injuries being the turning point for the declining process — but pretty much resulted in the team only having three forward lines they could trust.
While Kahun will be back in short order, Guentzel’s injury still left a significant hole on the left side in the top-six for most — if not all — of the season and into the playoffs.
They had to get somebody.
Zucker is not going to completely replace Guentzel — nor should he be expected to — but his style should be a good fit on any of the Penguins’ top-two lines.
He fits in long-term
The short-term rental market is bleak this trading season and was probably going to result in that first-round pick going out the door anyway, and for a player that probably would not have been here beyond this season. While I do not necessarily have a problem with that, it is still better to have a player that has term remaining and can make an impact for several seasons.
Zucker checks those boxes.
He not only upgrades the team in the short-term and serves as a temporary replacement for Guentzel, but is also going to be a part of the team in future seasons WITH Guentzel, giving them some pretty outstanding depth down the left side.
Zucker isn’t “young” in the NHL sense, but he’s also not an aging player whose career is set to fall off of a cliff, either. His salary cap term is manageable, and makes it so that both Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin should have a consistent winger for the remainder of their prime years in the NHL.
Which brings us to the team-building aspect of this trade.
The future has been, and still is, now
You only get players like Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin, and Kris Letang for so long, and you owe it to them and everyone else around them to do everything you can to try and win as many championships as you can. If they retired today their careers would be incredible with three championships and four Stanley Cup Final appearances. But they are not retiring today, and they still have a window open in front of them for a few more seasons.
There is not a late first-round draft pick (or any series of late first-round draft picks) that is going to prevent the Penguins from significantly regressing the minute Crosby and Malkin walk out that door. It is inevitable, and at that point it will be time for a massive rebuild. Anyone that is mad about that after what will almost certainly be two full consecutive decades of success and consistent contention (with multiple championships — and maybe another) is out of their minds.
Calen Addison, no matter how good he is, is not going to prevent that from happening.
Neither is the Tage Thompson or Riley Sheahan level of prospect late first-round picks typically end up being.
If you have a chance to get a bonafide top-six player that fits your style, improves your team in the short-term and long-term, and gives you a chance to improve your chances of winning a Stanley Cup right now while you still have your three superstars then you absolutely have to do it.
The Penguins have still developed talent without the luxury of first-round picks
Probably the weirdest aspect of this trade for me is the sentiment that the Penguins “gave up a lot” to get Zucker.
Really have not seen anyone say it is a bad trade, or that they gave up TOO much, but there is still a belief that they gave up an expensive package here.
Am not seeing that.
Galchenyuk’s struggles are well documented, as is the fact he was destined to be a healthy scratch at some point.
The most valuable piece the Penguins traded to Minnesota is Addison. He is a fine prospect for sure, probably the Penguins’ best at the time of the trade. Giving him up was probably difficult. But to get a player as good as Zucker, signed for as long as he is, you are going to have to give up SOMETHING significant.
Addison turned out to be that something.
Even so. they still have young options on the blue line with Marino, Marcus Pettersson, and perhaps even Pierre-Oliver Joseph. (the emergence of John Marino almost certainly made it easier to trade Addison). Maybe Addison turns out to be better than the latter two (his upside seems to point to that), but it’s still the type of chance you have to take.
Then we get to the first-round pick.
Sorry, but this just does not register with me. By this point we should know that picks in the 20-31 range have a relatively low ceiling, and while there are always exceptions (Evgeny Kuznetsov, David Pastrnak) the overwhelming majority of players taken in this range have less than a 50-50 shot of being NHL regulars. There is little difference in value between this pick, and a mid-second round pick.
The other important factor here is that while the Penguins have always been short on first-round picks and never seem to have the highest rated farm system, they still manage to produce NHL contributors.
Between 2010 and 2015 the Penguins selected the following players on this year’s team alone after the first round: Jake Guentzel, Matt Murray, Bryan Rust, Tristan Jarry, Teddy Blueger, and Dominik Simon, while also getting Zach Aston-Reese as an undrafted free agent.
They have also found ways to add them via trade (Marino, Kahun, Pettersson, Jared McCann).
The Penguins already have their core players in place. They have not had a need to develop a superstar to build the franchise around because those players already exist here and have existed here. They need to find complementary pieces to fit around them. They have continued to do that without the luxury of many high first-round picks.
Trades can be weird sometimes, and you never really know how a player is going to fit and perform until they actually get there. Sometimes it is a good fit, sometimes it is not. We still have to see how Zucker actually performs here both this season and in the future. But no matter what happens with him you have to like the chance they took and the reasons they took it. It is the type of move a Stanley Cup contender owes to itself to make, and it is absolutely worth the price they paid for it.