Hockey has not been kind to Jason Zucker’s body.
Zucker broke his collarbone in 2015 and his fibula in 2019. He underwent core muscle surgery in 2017, then again in 2022. He came back from his latest major surgery and immediately hurt his leg during his return on a brutal hit into the boards which left the Penguins lineup shaken.
From the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette on March 31, immediately following Zucker’s injury:
“It was awful. You obviously hate to see it. We see him working hard every day, rehabbing and trying to get back as fast as he can. So just to have that happen in his first game back was pretty heartbreaking.” —Casey DeSmith
“He’s a big part of this team on and off the ice. Just having him back I think was a spark for us, too. You could see it the first couple of periods.” —John Marino
Teammates in sickness and in health pic.twitter.com/FNdtoXiy1P— Pittsburgh Penguins (@penguins) April 1, 2022
Over the past two seasons, Zucker has skated in 79 of the Penguins’ 138 regular-season games.
He has likely not been fully healthy, excepting the five minutes during which he registered an assist in his return, since at least December 2021, when he started missing practices due to a nagging core issue.
Finally adding Zucker back to the lineup could mean a reliable linemate for Evgeni Malkin for the first time in over a year.
In 2021-22, Malkin’s most consistent linemate at 5v5 was Danton Heinen.
That almost certainly was not what the Penguins intended when they picked Heinen up as a free agent in summer 2021. Zucker’s injury and Kasperi Kapanen’s slide to the bottom six, and eventually a healthy scratch, left the second line in flux. Malkin ended up playing alongside everyone from Brock McGinn to Evan Rodrigues to Rickard Rakell in 2021-22. Few of these pairings stuck.
But with Zucker back, and Rakell potentially skating on the first line, the Penguins will have the opportunity to return to a previously successful option which we have barely seen over the past year: a second line of Zucker, Malkin and Bryan Rust.
This trio has only spent more than 10 minutes together in eight Penguins games, out of the 42 they’ve been simultaneously healthy for, according to Natural Stat Trick.
But Penguins fans saw some chemistry in those eight games— perhaps more than many of Malkin’s 5v5 combinations in 2020-21.
This goal against the Detroit Red Wings on April 23 encapsulates what there is to like about them: aggressive puck battles from notably tenacious forecheckers Rust and Zucker allow Malkin a chance to slam home his dangerous shot.
You see it again in this goal against the visiting Islanders the season prior. Malkin is not the Penguins’ most consistent forechecker, but the efforts of Rust and Zucker have spurred him to jump up into the zone, perhaps just because he knows they have a high likelihood of gaining possession.
We’ve seen less than 20 minutes of a Zucker-Malkin-Rakell line at 5v5, and it’s more than likely the Penguins will give this line another shot in 2022-23. After all, a top line of Guentzel-Crosby-Rust is a proven winning combination.
Either way, whether it is Rakell or Rust slotting in on Malkin’s wing, a start to the season where (knock on wood) everyone is healthy could hopefully allow Malkin the chance to build chemistry with consistent line mates for the first time in over a year.