Jason Zucker wasn’t having as strong as a season as was expected and hoped for when he went down injured on Tuesday night with just four goals and three assists in 17 games and just a 42.3% expected goals share.
Still, the Penguins took a big hit when one of their star wingers got injured, and now have a big hole in their lineup which will apparently remain for quite a while.
Coach Sullivan continued: "We would rather just report the injuries as longer-term, and that gives everyone kind of an idea of the nature of the rehab. But we're hopeful that we'll get him back in the regular season and get him back in our lineup as soon as we can."— Pens Inside Scoop (@PensInsideScoop) February 26, 2021
Now the question turns to just who will the Penguins look to fill Zucker’s spot until he can get back?
Last night the Pens, out of pretty much necessity and no other options, elevated their best remaining left winger onto the second line with Evgeni Malkin where Zucker was playing all season. That would be Zach Aston-Reese, who has flashed a bit offensively since coming back from shoulder surgery (3G+1A in seven games). But Aston-Reese has never really shown the offensive prowess or ability to play in a top-six role and is not likely a long term option to fill this role. Nothing he did last night would go to change that, as Aston-Reese was pretty quiet on the night, but more importantly Evgeni Malkin and Bryan Rust also were not noticeable at 5-on-5.
Luckily, a better option internally is about to present itself in the form of Jared McCann.
Forward Jared McCann, who has missed the last five games with a lower-body injury, is on the ice for the Pens optional morning skate wearing a regular jersey.— Pens Inside Scoop (@PensInsideScoop) February 25, 2021
McCann is probably the one player on the team right now in the bottom-six forward group who actually has the ability to produce and fill a role on a scoring line. Also, though in a brief sample of almost 100 minutes, McCann and Evgeni Malkin helped produce seven 5v5 goals for the Pens last season while on the ice together. This is a duo worth seeing more of (via Natural Stat Trick):
At least for the time being, Jared McCann coming back from injury and using his speed and playmaking to help Malkin out is probably the best case scenario for the Penguins as of now. If that doesn’t work out though, the team will have to look outside of the organization to fill the role.
While the Penguins are a fairly deep team while at 100% health as far as having a strong lineup, their depth is going to be tested with any major injury. That depth doesn’t look so hot with any top-six forward injury, as we’re now seeing. However, the team is better positioned to endure a winger injury than a center injury. Losing Zucker is a blow, but if a center went down the depth chart gets pretty scary in a big time hurry.
Where could the Pens turn to add a winger? That becomes a tougher proposition to pull off for several reasons.
Reason one: the salary cap. If Sullivan is correct about Zucker coming back during the regular season, Pittsburgh’s salary cap situation is not going to allow them to acquire a player with a sizeable salary. Without sending something back dollar-for-dollar the other way, at least. The salary cap is a hurdle that can be overcome if both parties want to complete a trade, but it’s a hurdle just the same.
Reason two: everyone is still “in the hunt” in a short season. Several teams are clearly going no where this season, but they are not going to be in the mode to pack up the season and punt on it so early into the year. Lack of willing sellers means there simply is no supply of players to acquire.
Reason three: Pittsburgh has very little to give up in order to acquire a fairly major piece. The Pens don’t have a first, third or fourth round pick this year, they have very few valuable prospects to offer up. The team has some defensive depth but probably isn’t looking to part with that much of it, considering they just endured going through significant injury history on the back-end.
The Pensblog put out a very interesting article earlier this week (pre-Zucker injury) about the possibility of adding a right-shot winger. That still could be the case now since Bryan Rust has some positional flexibility to play the left side, but the team could also be looking now for a left shot left wing if the Zucker injury is more in the terms of going to last months instead of weeks.
Kyle Palmieri was listed as a trade candidate and to an extent it makes sense, He’s an impending free agent, playing on a team not likely to make a playoff push this season. However, we’re going on 20 years since the Penguins and Devils made a major trade, as divisional rivals tend to trade very little with each other in this salary cap era. New Pens general manager Ron Hextall has also been a part of this history, in his stint in Philadelphia, Hextall almost never traded with division opponents.
The Pens may or may not have options available to make a trade. At this point, the best hope for the team would be that Jared McCann comes back healthy and able to play a solid supporting role with Malkin so that Aston-Reese can go back to the Buzzsaw line and strengthen the bottom six.
The Jason Zucker injury will be tough for the team to endure based on how they were built. It’s difficult to lose key pieces in the middle of the season. It’s certainly nothing new but it will be another loss that will test the “next man up” philosophy that the Pens are forced to talk so often about.