While the Pittsburgh Penguins have had some extended moments of inconsistency this season as a team, Jason Zucker has been one of their more consistent individual players. Even more, he is having the type of season and impact that everybody wanted to see from him when he was acquired from the Minnesota Wild a few years ago.
He made a huge impact in Tuesday’s win over the Vancouver Canucks, scoring a game-tying goal, assisting on another, and delivering one of the biggest clean open ice hits of the season. At least among players in a Penguins uniform.
At the halfway point of the year he is on pace for 22 goals and 60 points over an 82-game season while also posting great possession numbers. It has been, to this point, one of the best offensive seasons of his career and close to what he was doing during his peak years with the Wild. Even more than all of that, he is one of the best forechecking forwards on the team and one of the most consistent effort players they have. Every game, no matter the situation, he is bringing it.
After Tuesday’s win, The Athletic’s Rob Rossi addressed one of the big elephants in the room relating to Zucker and his future.
Zucker is eligible for unrestricted free agent after the 2022-23 season and is in need of a new contract.
Rossi argues the Penguins should be the team to give that to him given pretty much everything mentioned above. Zucker really has become one of the team’s most important cogs this season.
Here is the thing about Zucker: I think he has always been the player the Penguins expected him to be since he arrived. Is he a better version of that this season? Absolutely he is. But it is not like his play dropped off after arriving in Pittsburgh. If you look at his offensive production on a per-game basis his Penguins career matches his Wild career almost identically. In fact, his point per game number actually INCREASES by a small margin in Pittsburgh.
He has been what the Penguins traded for in pretty much every sense with only one major flaws.
He has constantly been injured.
He has been viewed as a disappointment at times because we have never really been able to see him on a consistent basis.
That, combined with the fact he turns 31 in a couple of days (and will be 32 in the first year of a new contract extension) are two pretty big red flags against a potential extension,
But what would that even look like?
Zucker currently has a $5.5 million cap hit, and before this season I get the sense it was viewed as a drain on the cap for no other reason than the fact he missed so much time. But I think that is probably the market rate for somebody of his skillset, age, and production.
Just look at this past free agent market and what comparable players got on the open market.
A 31-year-old Ondrej Palat, whose production is SLIGHTLY higher than Zucker’s signed a five-year, $30 million deal with the New Jersey Devils.
Similar story for Reilly Smith he signed for $15 million over three years in Vegas.
David Perron, who is more productive but also a few years older, got two years and $9 million from the Detroit Red Wings.
Even in Pittsburgh we saw Rickard Rakell and Bryan Rust re-sign in the $5-6 million range.
That is the going rate for a 20-goal, 50-or 60-point middle-six winger in their late 20s and early 30s on the open market.
How comfortable would you be committing that sort of deal to Zucker at this point?
I am very torn on that.
On one hand, I love his game. I love the way he plays. He has become a key part of the top-six and I do not know how easily they will find a better option. There is certainly not one coming from in-house, and their trade assets are very limited and probably need to be more focused on other areas anyway. With Zucker in the mix their top-six is still as good as any other team in the NHL, and it is the biggest reason they are as competitive as they are this season.
On the other hand, you are putting a lot of hope into him being able to consistently stay on the ice, which has been by far the biggest problem for him. That is a risk.
I am not at worried about the age factor because the Penguins have already made it very clear they are all in on whatever is remaining of the Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin, and Kris Letang window and will worry about future season when they get there. Zucker still aligns with that window. At least for now.
I would not go more than three years. And I would not go more than his current salary cap hit. But if that is the limit you set, you might lose him on the open market where another team might go beyond that.
He has proved his worth. It just a matter of how confident you are he can stay on the ice enough over the next few years to pay him for it.