There are a lot of reasons for optimism with the Pittsburgh Penguins right now. They are in a good position in the standings, they are playing well for the most, they have some surprising forward depth, and Jeff Carter has made a strong first impression in his first three games with the team. Not only that, they still have returns for Evgeni Malkin, Brandon Tanev, and Kasperi Kapanen on the horizon for the start of the playoffs.
Are they a legitimate contender? They might be. If not, they are right on the line and ridiculously close to being a legitimate contender.
There is one player, though, that I would love to see a little more from. That player: Jason Zucker.
Zucker is going to be a major X-factor for the stretch run (and even into the playoffs) because he should have more to offer the team offensively.
Overall, his offensive numbers are way down across the board from his normal career averages, and he missed a significant portion of the season due to injury. Since returning to the lineup a little less than a month he only has four points (three goals, one assist) in 10 games.
If you go back before the injury, he has just six points (four goals, two assists) in 17 games.
That is not what the Penguins paid a first-round pick and a top prospect for. What has been most concerning recently is that Zucker has looked like a player that has lost some confidence. Before scoring a late goal on Sunday and recording four shots on goal, he had managed just six shots on goal in his previous six games. Even on Sunday he looked really off at times. Specifically on a late second period two-on-one rush where he had a wide open look, pretty much Buffalo giving him a breakaway, where he inexplicably tried to force a pass over to Jeff Carter and telegraphed it the entire way. That is a shot that simply must be taken.
Maybe the goal is something that opens the floodgates a little bit. Maybe it brings back some of that confidence.
It is actually an interesting situation because while Zucker’s individual play has slumped, his newly formed line with Carter and Jared McCann has actually played very, very well.
In 32 minutes together over three games that line has completely controlled the pace of play. They own a 71 percent share of the total shot attempts, have dominated the scoring chance numbers, and already contributed a pair of goals. Carter has looked great and like a constant threat, while McCann has become one of the Penguins hottest goal scorers in recent weeks. There is a lot to like about that line and the way it has played.
Even with that, you still want to see a little more from Zucker because you know he is a better player than that.
If the Penguins can get that, it definitely makes their forward group that much deeper and that much stronger. I don’t expect 30-35 goals or 80 points over an 82-game pace here. And the Penguins do not need that for him to be an effective player. And while seven goals in 27 games is a respectable number for a top-six forward (it is basically 20 goals over 82 games) it is concerning that he is doing it while averaging just a little over 1.5 shots on goal per game. That is a career-low number for him, especially as it trends in the wrong direction in recent weeks.
Is it just a slump? Is it him still working his way back from a major injury that looked significantly worse than it turned out to be? (I am actually surprised he came back as quickly as he did given how bad it looked initially). Or is it the sign of a 29-year-old winger starting to slow down a little?
The latter is probably a premature overreaction. So hopefully it is just one of the first two and a bounce-back performance is ahead. Because if the Penguins can get the version of Zucker that they traded for a year ago that is going to be a major boost to the lineup and could give them a forward group that is as good as any that they have had since the 2017 Stanley Cup year.