Almost every single time the 2022-23 Pittsburgh Penguins have needed a lift, or a big goal, or somebody to just do something to swing the momentum of a game, it seems like Jason Zucker has been the person to deliver it. Maybe he is not quite the Penguins’ MVP this season, simply because Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin have still been great, but Zucker is very much in that discussion if you are going for the most subjective definition of the term “valuable.”
Need a big hit to swing momentum? Zucker has brought it.
Need somebody to get in on the forecheck and win puck battles in the offensive zone? Zucker brings it every night.
Need a big goal in a big moment to swing a game in your favor? He has done that as well.
He actually did it twice on Tuesday night in the Penguins’ 5-4 overtime win against the Columbus Blue Jackets, helping them erase an early four-goal deficit and avoid what could have been very likely the low-point of the season and a very costly dropped two points. But Zucker got the Penguins on the board midway through the second period with his 20th goal of the season, and then scored the middle goal in that early three-goal in three minutes third period outburst to tie the game and help send it to overtime where Malkin and Crosby would team up for the game-winning goal.
Statistically, Zucker is on track for one of the best seasons of his career. His 82-game pace puts him near 30 goals and 60 points, which would be topped only by his 2017-18 performance with the Minnesota Wild.
It has been a dramatic turnaround for him after two highly disappointing years that made his contract look like something that needed to be dumped and made a lot of people question the price paid to acquire him.
The issue with Zucker though has never been his production, or even his play. It has simply been keeping him on the ice. When he has been on the ice as a member of the Penguins his production has always matched, almost identically, what he did throughout most of his career in Minnesota. A solid, 20-goal, 45-50-point pace while providing a spark on the forecheck and around the boards. He never changed as a player. He never got worse. He just was never consistently there. Now that he is there, we are seeing the type of player he can truly be.
It also creates quite another dilemma for the Penguins’ front office after the season because you have to figure out what to try and do with him as a pending unrestricted free agent. He has more than proven his worth to the team and the locker room this season both on and off the ice. He is the rock of this group right now and always there when they need something to swing a game.
He is also one of their most productive players and a key part of the top-six forward group that has completely carried a very flawed roster this season. He has more than earned a new contract extension. But what does that even look like? What price do you go to? What term do you go to? Do you re-sign another player over the age of 31 to a long-term deal when you already have so many other players that fit that criteria under contract and for so much money?
I have been torn on this all season but I am really starting to come down on the side of “you kind of have to re-sign him.” Or at least make the effort.
When you made the decision to bring back Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin, Kris Letang, Rickard Rakell, and Bryan Rust you made the decision that you are trying to win with this core while they can still play. That is a very short window. It makes no sense to half ass that and try to simultaneously win now while also keeping an eye on the future. You can not do that. There is no way to do that where you do not waste the time of the veteran players still here while also not fully setting yourself up for the future. You chose this path, you follow it.
That means if you have a player like Zucker that clearly fits the team, clearly makes a huge impact on the score sheet and off of the score sheet, and is clearly one of your most important players you kind of have to try and keep him.
When the Crosby/Malkin/Letang trio is done in a few years the Penguins are already facing an extensive rebuild. Adding another Zucker contract into that mix is not going to change anything relating to that. He has proven his worth. Take the chance. See if there is an agreement to be made.