It may not seem like it, because time no longer has any meaning, but Jason Zucker is already playing in his fourth different season with the Pittsburgh Penguins. It has been a polarizing, and at times frustrating, tenure because we have never really seen him be the player the Penguins hoped they were getting when they acquired him during the 2019-20 season.
He arrived with much fanfare and hype because he was seen as a significant upgrade to the top-six, and he even got off to a great start after that trade deadline. There were some concerns with the trade initially given how much the Penguins gave up (Calen Addison, first round-pick) and Zucker’s contract, but it still seemed like a strong deal.
But in the following seasons a combination of injuries, and Zucker’s production not exactly matching the initial expectation, has made him somewhat of a polarizing player. Maybe even a frustrating player. He has a tendency to create chances, but does not always finish them. He plays hard and seems to fit the team well, but injuries have been a constant thorn in his side and kept him out of the lineup.
The funny thing with Zucker is when you look at what he has actually produced as a member of the Penguins, it is mostly right in line with his career averages in Minnesota.
He averaged 0.29 goals per game with the Wild, a 23-goal pace per 82 games.
He has averaged 0.25 goals per game with the Penguins, a 20-goal pace per 82 games.
He averaged 0.53 points per game with the Wild, a 43-point pace per 82 games.
He has averaged 0.52 points per game with the Penguins, a 42-point pace per 82 games.
The only difference is he just has not been on the ice enough to reach those numbers. And those numbers are perfectly fine for a middle-six winger. I have said this before regarding other players over the years, but being a Penguins fan kind of messes with our expectation of what a player should produce. When you watch Mario Lemieux, Jaromir Jagr, Ron Francis, Alex Kovalev, Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin, Phil Kessel, and Jake Guentzel every year for 35 consecutive years it kind of inflates the expectation for what players should produce. Not everybody on your first-or second-line is going to score 35 goals and 100 points every year.
I know his contract carries a big salary cap number, but I never really bought into the idea that the Penguins had to desperately try to shed it. And giving up an asset to move him in the offseason would have been costly because it not only would have cost an additional asset, it would have created another hole in the top-six. Even though he only played in a handful of games after January and into the playoffs I really thought when he was on the ice in the second half of last season we really started to see what sort of impact he can make.
He’s smart, he’s strong on the forecheck, he can create, and he is going to score enough goals to be useful, even if he seems to leave some on the table.
All of that brings us to the first three games of this season.
Coming into the year fully healthy and playing alongside Evgeni Malkin and Bryan Rust, Zucker has looked exactly like the player the Penguins hoped he would be and has helped give Malkin some steady wingers that can help get the best out of him. That line so far has been completely dominant statistically, and has been one of the Penguins’ best in terms of tilting the ice, creating chances, controlling the pace of games, and scoring goals.
Zucker has been high on my list for bounce back candidates all offseason and things are off to a pretty great start for him. As long as he stays healthy he is going to be a pleasant surprise in the Penguins’ lineup all year.