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Jason Zucker’s bounce back season off to strong start

Jason Zucker wanted to have a better season for the Pittsburgh Penguins and he has been one of their best players so far this season.

NHL: Toronto Maple Leafs at Pittsburgh Penguins Philip G. Pavely-USA TODAY Sports

There have been a lot of positive developments for the Pittsburgh Penguins over the first few weeks of the 2021-22 NHL season. That may seem like a weird thing to say for a team that has spent the entire season to this point playing without almost all of its best players, but the way the depth players have stepped forward to help the team get off to a 3-1-2 start has been a significant deal.

Among those positive developments has been a strong start to the season for veteran winger Jason Zucker.

Zucker was a huge wild card for the Penguins entering the season because there really was not much idea as to what to expect from him.

He still has a pretty major contract, but was coming off of a disappointing 2020-21 season. The Penguins paid a steep price for him at the trade deadline a year earlier and had received some mixed results. With another two years and $11 million (a $5.5 million salary cap number per season) remaining on his contract it was going to be important for him to be better than he was. Especially if the Penguins were going to keep their Stanley Cup window open for another season, and especially given the injury situation they have been dealing with so far at the start.

The early returns are promising.

Zucker scored the lone goal for the Penguins on Tuesday night in a 5-1 loss to the Tampa Bay Lightning, giving him three goals and four total points through the first six games of the season. Strong numbers for sure, but what has been most encouraging is the way he has produced those box score numbers. It is not just a case of strong results, but a strong process as well.

His overall underlying numbers have been among the best on the team.

During 5-on-5 play the Penguins have controlled more than 53 percent of the total shot attempts when Zucker is on the ice. Their expected goal mark is at 64 percent, their scoring chance mark is 58 percent, and their high-danger scoring chance mark is more than 72 percent. In other words, when Zucker is on the ice the Penguins significantly tilting the ice in their favor and controlling the game in the most significant ways. The only thing that has not gone on their favor is they are getting crushed on the percentages (Zucker’s PDO is only a .957, thanks to a dismal .862 save percentage when he is on the ice).

Perhaps the most encouraging sign has been Zucker’s own ability to generate shots and chances. One of the things he pointed to in the preseason that he needed to do was take on more of a shot first mentality. His shot attempt numbers took a pretty significant dip a year ago and no doubt played a role in his decline in production.

So far this season he has done a much better job getting pucks at the net. Through the first six games he has been one of the Penguins’ best players in terms of generating shots and shot attempts.

As of Wednesday, he is 12.3 shots on goal per 60 minutes, 16.1 shot attempts, 10.4 individual scoring chances per 60 minutes, and 1.16 individual expected goals per 60 minutes.

All of those numbers place him among the top-four players on the team.

They are also significant improvements from his 2020-21 numbers. A year ago he averaged just 6.74 shots on goal per 60 minutes and only 11.4 total shot attempts per 60 minutes, both of which were the lowest marks of his career. In fact, pretty much all of his individual shot and scoring chance numbers were the lowest of his career. It was a down year across the board and was a major contribution factor in a significantly disappointing season.

At his peak Zucker was a 25-goal, 50-point forward that was a legitimate top-six (and fringe top-line) scorer in the NHL. He still has that ability and is capable of being that player. If he can get back to being that player it will be a major development for the Penguins’ chances for this season. It will significantly improve their forward depth and just further balance out their lineup. Given the talent they lost during the offseason with the departure of Brandon Tanev in the Seattle Kraken expansion draft and the trade of Jared McCann, they could certainly use that sort of development.

So far Zucker is giving them that sort of production. The underlying numbers are a strong indicator that it might be able to continue.