Whether it’s because he counts $5.5 million against the salary cap or because he was involved in one of the many trades in which Jim Rutherford sent a first-round draft choice the other way, Jason Zucker isn’t exactly a player Penguins fans speak fondly of.
After all, the Penguins have been outscored 29-37 with Zucker on the ice at 5v5 during the regular season since he was acquired, and he hasn’t done much individually to justify the cost of acquisition.
Zucker’s results have been a bit all over the place the past three seasons, and though his time in Pittsburgh has been underwhelming, I believe there’s a route for the Penguins to leverage his skillset and maximize the value they get out of him.
Before we get to that, there’s a couple things to keep in mind:
- Zucker will be 30-years old next January. Based on a standard age-curve, this is the age you start to see diminishing returns from wingers. This isn’t to say that they aren’t or can’t be effective players, rather that they are on the downswing in terms of their overall impact. This isn’t exactly a news-flash, but in some cases the effects are dramatic.
- There were signs that Zucker was slowing down before the Penguins even traded for him. The 45 games he played with Minnesota in 2019-20 before being acquired saw the Wild generate less 5v5 offense with Zucker on the ice than any of the previous four seasons. On top of that, it was also the first time in four seasons that the Wild scored fewer than 50% of the goals with him on the ice at 5v5 (though poor goaltending appeared to play a factor).
Though his ability to drive play at either end of the rink has nose-dived, at least for the time being, I’m confident in asserting that Zucker remains a solid goal scorer, especially at 5v5.
While I believe there are a couple of factors that have hindered Zucker’s success in Pittsburgh, it’s also entirely possible that I’m hyper-focusing on his environment and that he simply isn’t all that effective any longer.
Reality most likely lies somewhere between what I believe he can be and what he’s shown us with the Penguins.
Regardless, it doesn’t take a hockey expert to recognize Zucker and Evgeni Malkin aren’t stylistic fits for each other, yet they were practically attached at the hip when both were healthy and in the lineup in 2020-21.
In over 250 5v5 minutes together, the duo was outscored 13-10 while getting heavily outchanced.
When Zucker flanked deadline-sensation Jeff Carter, the results were much better. This presents an immediate solution and a fallback option in the future for the suggestion I’m about to make.
Play Zucker alongside Sidney Crosby.
I know, I know; why would the Penguins put a player who hasn’t met expectations alongside one of the best in the world? Why would the Penguins split Guentzel from Crosby? Would Crosby even “allow” such a thing?
Keep in mind that my suggestion only applies with Malkin healthy and in the lineup, but assuming the captain would “allow” a temporary breakup with Guentzel, 16 and 87 make a ton of sense together.
The most prominent reason being Malkin and Zucker’s obvious lack of chemistry, but another being Crosby and Zucker’s encouraging performance in their brief time together in 2019-20.
At first glance, the duo’s 5v5 results aren’t overly appealing. In 189 minutes together they outscored the opposition 9-8, but controlled 49% of the expected goals and 48% of the scoring chances. However, half of their time together was spent with Jack Johnson.
The JJ excuse is old and tired, but this is a guy who gets crushed playing third-pairing minutes. He’s going to have insane impacts when playing at the top of the lineup. Removing him from the equation paints a beautiful picture of Crosby and Zucker.
The sample size away from Johnson is small enough to throw caution to the wind, but the dazzling results shouldn’t be ignored either. They outscored the opposition 8-4 with a terrorizing 71-39 shot advantage.
Obviously those gaudy results won’t hold up over a longer period of time, but that doesn’t mean they won’t remain incredibly strong. Zucker’s forecheck and give-and-go style complements Crosby immensely, and it’s why I think they could see continued success together.
On the other side of the coin, whenever the 35-year old Malkin returns from injury, it will be paramount for the Penguins to put him in a position to succeed, and that starts by getting him away from Zucker.
The Penguins could theoretically prolong Malkin’s elite play if they were to flank him with the team’s two best wingers, Guentzel and Rust. It also just so happens that Malkin had one of the best seasons of his career at age 33 when Crosby missed time due to injury and he had first dibs on wingers.
In fact, since the start of 2019-20 season, the Penguins are much more dominant when Malkin centers Guentzel and Rust than when Crosby centers them.
Guentzel-Crosby-Rust have been able to outshine their 52% expected goals share with a 59% goals share in that time, but feast your eyes on the Penguins’ offense in 2019-20 with Guentzel-Malkin-Rust on the ice at 5v5:
Those results are nothing to ignore either, and the sample size is large enough that it’s safe to assume future results would be well above average, even if they don’t come close to such dominance.
My rationale behind all of this is posturing the Penguins to get the most out of what they have.
We know Malkin and Zucker can’t stay together. So do you send Zucker to the third line? He’d be fine with Carter, but who flanks Malkin? Brock McGinn? Maybe. Danton Heinen? Probably not.
We know Crosby and Zucker complement each other and have shown flashes of brilliance together. If they don’t reach the level they were previously at, I’m still willing to bet the results will be better than whatever Zucker and Malkin can do together.
So, instead of a really good first line and a second line that can’t keep its head above water, by swapping Guentzel and Zucker they’ll have two lines that you know will be rock solid with the potential for much more.
With a completely healthy group of forwards, their lineup could look like this:
Thanks for reading! Let’s talk hockey on Twitter. Follow me @shireyirving.
All data via Natural Stat Trick
Shot maps via Hockey Viz’s environment distiller
Player card via JFresh Hockey