It’s time for America’s favorite game (OK, probably not): Big Deal, Little Deal, No Deal! We dive into some topics and debate just how important they truly are around the Penguins. Now let’s get to it.
Jason Zucker: Big Deal
Jason Zucker is having a great time for a great season. Lately in the NHL, there aren’t many players better.
Jason Zucker has hit (and now surpassed) the 20-goal mark for the sixth time in his career.— Penguins PR (@PenguinsPR) March 8, 2023
With eight goals in his last 10 games, only four players in the NHL have more goals than Zucker in that span. pic.twitter.com/h9SdSUq3tt
Zucker has been huge for the Penguins lately, often driving them on and helping them re-find footing in tough times.
Mike Sullivan on Jason Zucker: "He brings a certain swagger to our group, a ton of energy. He's very well-liked in our locker room, is a bit of the team comedian... his personality combined with how he plays, I think our team feeds off that."— Pens Inside Scoop (@PensInsideScoop) March 8, 2023
It’s a contract year for Zucker, who isn’t young (then again, not many on this team are). Will he be back? Is there enough salary cap room? Is it too risky to commit to him? Would he rather move it on down the line? All of this noise and questions are ones that can’t be answered right now, so just sit back and enjoy the show. It’s one hell of a performance and a big deal.
Alex Nylander’s debut: Little deal...Unless the Penguins choose otherwise
Alex Nylander played his first NHL game in almost three years last night. By almost any measure, it was a very successful debut for himself as a Pittsburgh Penguin.
I tracked Alex Nylander's zone exits and entries at 5v5 tonight.— Danny Shirey (@DannyShireyPGH) March 8, 2023
He did not fail at either blue line once.
4 D-zone exits, all with possession.
8 O-zone entries, 3 with possession.
0 goals against
28 shot attempts
9 attempts against
79.2% xG share
On one hand, let’s not fool ourselves — Nylander’s presence was only needed in Pittsburgh because Mikael Granlund got sick, Bryan Rust’s wife was having a baby and Ryan Poehling can’t stay healthy. If those events don’t all converge at the same time, Nylander wouldn’t have been in the NHL yesterday.
But the door of opportunity did open and no matter the circumstances it took to get there, Nylander did well.
Now the question becomes: will that performance change the Penguins’ plans?
Nylander is on an emergency recall, so under that designation he must be assigned back to the AHL when the emergency conditions (aka: the Pens get back to 12 available forwards) are over. That could be as soon as today and almost certainly will be before the next game tomorrow night.
However, if Nylander won over coach Mike Sullivan and the Pens’ other decision makers — there is a path for them to change course and for the player to stay. His emergency recall could be converted to a normal one, and Pittsburgh could remain under the salary cap by keeping Poehling on the LTIR for as long as Nylander is on their NHL roster.
Given waiver statuses (Nylander wouldn’t need them to go back to Wilkes returning from emergency recall, but that would change if converted to a regular one), the salary cap and all the other factors, the path of least resistance is to send Nylander back, at least for right now. It won’t be popular, but it would be the savvy roster management play. Pittsburgh is only rolling with 12 healthy forwards, so it wouldn’t take much for another injury/illness and another emergency recall to have him right back again.
Converting to a normal recall makes the situation with Poehling on LTIR a little messier and would be more of a commitment to keep Nylander for a while, possibly the rest of the regular season.
A shift that big feels extreme after only one game (let’s not forget an impressive NHL debut turned into a one-night cameo and nothing more for Valtteri Puusitnen) — but Nylander has at least raised the question and made it reasonable for the Pens to debate keeping around to see more of.
Little Deal: Playing with 11 healthy forwards last night
It’s almost comical now that if anything can pop up to bite Ron Hextall professionally these days, it’s finding a way to do so. The latest embarrassment was fielding a lineup with only having 11 healthy forwards for a game. The Penguins only had 11 healthy forwards because they have no cap space, and were carrying 13 after the trade deadline settled (and just 12 healthy ones with Poehling’s lingering, known issues).
They have such few space and the bare minimum of forwards because Hextall went the other way and loaded up on defense at the break (namely, Dmitry Kulikov and a $1.25 million cap hit) to make for eight healthy defenders.
Give the Pens an A for effort for clearing up the cap space needed by putting Poehling on LTIR so that they could make a recall (Nylander) yesterday. But that didn’t help when two forwards turned up unavailable, and Pittsburgh only had cap space to make one recall.
Anyways, maybe a blessing in disguise: with enough forwards in the game, Nylander surely doesn’t play close to 15 minutes and turn heads. It’s not reassuring that it takes the roster version of stubbing your toe to find out that wall you kicked had loosened up a $100 tucked behind the baseboard, but hey, good things are good things no matter how they are discovered.