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Can the Penguins afford to keep Jason Zucker next season?

A bigger problem than the cost of Zucker’s contract is likely to be its length.

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Pittsburgh Penguins v Columbus Blue Jackets Photo by Jason Mowry/Getty Images

Every Penguins game was the “best of the year” with Jason Zucker.

He was at times the most exciting Penguins skater to watch in 2022-2. He brought energy to a team sometimes sorely needing a boost. And few players have ever looked more excited to celebrate a goal in black and gold.

Can the Penguins afford to bring him back next year?

New York Islanders v Pittsburgh Penguins Photo by Joe Sargent/NHLI via Getty Images

Zucker said after the season that he’d be interested in staying with the Penguins.

“It’s a great city. The fan base is unreal,” Zucker said about Pittsburgh, per the Penguins. “To me, it’s like the perfect sized city, you know? It’s a lot of fun to be here. This organization is world class too.”

Zucker continued: “I love it here and I want to be back, but now it’s obviously out of my control and we’ll figure it out.”

The former Wild winger is coming off one of the best seasons of his career. After being limited by injuries for his past two seasons in Pittsburgh, he returned to put up 27 goals and 48 points, his highest totals since his career-best 2017-18 campaign in Minnesota.

Back in 2018, 33 goals and 64 points netted him five years at a $5.5 million AAV. CapFriendly’s comparable deals tell us he might net a similar number in 2023.

After a season like that, there’s no question that 31-year-old Zucker should be looking to cash in with a multi-year contract. The question is whether it is a good idea for the Penguins to commit to an extended term as they attempt to retool this roster into a competitive postseason team next year.

Nashville Predators v Pittsburgh Penguins Photo by Joe Sargent/NHLI via Getty Images

Last year, two months before Bryan Rust became an unrestricted free agent, the Penguins extended him an offer of six years at $5.125 million. Rust had put up very similar numbers in 2021-22 (24 goals, 34 assists) to what Zucker recorded this year.

That contract will run until Rust is 36. Former GM Ron Hextall said at the time that the Penguins had stretched the term in order to cut down AAV, in similar reasoning to Rickard Rakell’s six-year, $5 million AAV deal.

How many more of that kind of term commitments do the Penguins want to add to the books— especially given that it will be a new front office taking the reins next fall?

Over the past year, the Penguins have gradually spent more and more of the cap on players over 30, adding Mikael Granlund (two more years at $5 mil, age 31) and Jeff Petry (two more years at $6.25 mil, age 35) via trade.

It’s now clear— if it wasn’t already then— that this is a team that needs to get younger and faster to supplement its still extremely skilled, but aging, core. If the first move a new front office takes when coming in is to sign another player over age 30 to another multi-year contract, wouldn’t it feel like a move in Hextall’s same direction?

What’s your take? What’s the largest or longest contract you’d be happy to see the Penguins offer Zucker in order to keep him skating in Pittsburgh next fall?