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Penguins will need more from Kapanen, Heinen in Jason Zucker absence

Jason Zucker has been one of the Penguins’ best forwards this season and his absence will leave a significant dent in the lineup.

St Louis Blues v Pittsburgh Penguins Photo by Joe Sargent/NHLI via Getty Images

There was some significant injury news for the Pittsburgh Penguins on Wednesday regarding defenseman Jeff Petry and forward Jason Zucker. Petry’s absence (which seems to be the longer term injury) is going to be a tough blow to a defense that has been play extremely well over the past few weeks, and we already dug into that issue here.

The Zucker injury is going to be a problem as well, and they need a couple of players on the roster to step up in his absence.

It also sucks for two main reasons.

The first is just the simple fact that Zucker had finally been able to string together a healthy stretch of games with the Penguins after being hampered by injuries for most of his tenure with the team.

The second is that not only has he been healthy, but he has also been REALLY good. Entering the Penguins’ game in Florida on Thursday he is the team’s fourth-leading scorer with 20 points in 27 games, and on track for a very strong season offensively. He is also one of the team’s best forecheckers and just a rock solid player that does a lot of little things well in the offensive zone and neutral zone that can help out his linemates.

The trio of Evgeni Malkin, Bryan Rust, and Zucker had also been really starting to click as the team’s second line, giving the Penguins a dominant top-six grouping along with the Sidney Crosby, Jake Guentzel, and Rickard Rakell trio at the top.

In nearly 200 minutes of 5-on-5 hockey, the Malkin-Rust-Zucker line has scored 10 goals and dominated teams territorially, controlling more than 57 percent of the total shot attempts. 63 percent of the expected goals. 62 percent of the scoring chances, and 73 percent of the high-danger scoring chances.

(All numbers via Natural Stat Trick.)

That is strong play that was only starting to get better. Malkin seems ready to really break out, Rust is starting to get back on track after a slow start, and Zucker has just been rock solid all year.

Now Zucker is sidelined for at least a week, and potentially more.

The creates a pretty big hole on the second line that will presumably be filled by either Kasperi Kapanen and/or Danton Heinen (who skated in that spot on Wednesday).

The Penguins need more from both players.

Kapanen found himself as a healthy scratch for a significant portion of the season, and outside of a hat trick game against St. Louis he has not been all that productive offensively, while not consistently generating much individually. Since that three-goal game against the Blues, he does have two assists, but has only managed just three shots on goal in four games.

Heinen, meanwhile, has not scored a goal in 19 games and has just 20 shots on goal during that stretch (with five of those coming in one game against Boston).

That sort of production from either player is not going to cut it in a bigger role.

I liked the addition of Heinen last year and loved bringing him back on such a cheap deal this year, but he can be extremely streaky. What is most concerning about his play recently is not just the lack of production, but the fact he is not even putting himself in a position to produce. He had almost as many shots on goal in his first six games (18, where he also scored all three of his goals) as he has had in his past 19 games (with zero goals).

Kapanen, meanwhile, is just really tough to grasp because he SHOULD be a good player. He has the talent, and it is not really a question of effort or trying, but it just never seems to all come together for him. Every once in a while it all falls into place for a stretch of games, and then goes away just as quickly.

They both figure to get a big opportunity to make more of an impact with Zucker sidelined.

The Penguins need at least one of them to provide it to help fill Zucker’s shoes on the second line.