J.R. on Zucker: ‘We like speed, two-way play, shot’


To continue reading, log into your account:

[theme-my-login show_title=0]
Jason Zucker, last week in St. Paul, Minn. - GETTY

Jim Rutherford had a deal in place to acquire winger Jason Zucker from Minnesota last summer, but Phil Kessel, who would have gone to the Wild in that trade, exercised his right to veto it.

Rutherford persisted, though, and it paid off Monday night when he landed Zucker in exchange for winger Alex Galchenyuk, a conditional first-round choice in the 2020 NHL Draft and defense prospect Calen Addison. The condition on the draft choice is that the Penguins have the option to give Minnesota their No. 1 pick in 2021 instead of 2020 if they fail to qualify for the playoffs this season.

Zucker, 28, is 5-foot-11, 192 pounds and has 14 goals and 15 assists in 45 games with the Wild this season.

He is a good skater who plays a high-energy game and is responsible defensively, which should make him a good fit for Mike Sullivan's system.

"We like his speed, his two-way play, his shot," Rutherford said. "We like his all-around play."

Although the Penguins have not announced how Zucker will be used -- Sullivan is not scheduled to speak with reporters until 11:30 a.m. Tuesday -- he is expected to play left wing on Sidney Crosby's line.

It's worth noting Zucker -- who had his most productive season in 2017-18, when he accumulated 33 goals and 31 assists in 82 games -- has a history of running hot-and-cold, offensively.

His career statistics -- 132 goals and 111 assists in 456 games -- reinforce the idea that he is more of goal-scorer than a set-up man.

Zucker's goal-scoring ability is particularly important to the Penguins because they don't know when -- or if -- Jake Guentzel will be able to return from shoulder surgery this season. Rutherford acknowledged he isn't certain he would have made this deal if Guentzel had been healthy.

"I don't know the answer," he said. "We've liked Zucker for a long time, probably two or three years. What this does now, over time, is now we have Guentzel and Zucker as a 1-2 punch on the left side, so this isn't only about now. It's about going forward with what I see as our window here (to compete for a Stanley Cup) still open for this year and a couple more. I would say, probably, yes."

This is not a typical "rental" acquisition that is made so often as the NHL trade deadline approaches. Zucker has a salary cap hit of $5.5 million on a contract that runs through the 2022-23 season.

"We like that part of it," Rutherford said. "The fact that he's in the prime of his career and we have him locked up for another three years after this."

Zucker's contract includes a modified no-trade clause that allows him to submit a list of 10 teams to which he cannot be dealt.

Galchenyuk, ironically enough, came over from Arizona in a trade Kessel okayed after he had ruled out the one Rutherford worked out with Minnesota.

He was a profound disappointment, putting up only five goals and 12 assists in 45 games. He played his way out of a top-six role and finished his time with the Penguins on the fourth line.

Galchenyuk was injured early in training camp, if not before, and that put him in a hole from which he never escaped.

"When I look at all the circumstances, I'm not surprised," Rutherford said of Galchenyuk's performance. "He didn't tell anyone about his groin pull at the start, because he didn't want to get behind. That made it tough for him at camp, and then he missed games, and he could never really catch up. I feel bad because Alex worked hard. He's a good person. He never complained. I think there will be a place where he can go and probably do better than he's done here if the system suits his style of play."

The departure of Galchenyuk, who will be an unrestricted free agent July 1, probably won't have a meaningful impact on the Penguins this season, but they might miss Addison over the long term because he's one of the organization's top defensive prospects.

"We like him a lot," Rutherford said. "We feel he's going to be an NHL player. But it's like we always say when deals are made: 'You have to give something to get something.' I think it would have been pretty hard to put Addison in a deal for a rental player."

The same is true of the first-rounder. The Penguins' pool of quality prospects is pretty shallow, but early-round draft choices are what most teams are looking for when they part with someone off their major-league roster at this time of year.

"It's tough to give it up," Rutherford said. "But our window of opportunity is now. We hope that pick is really late in the first round. Our philosophy is to win, year by year, and to do that, you have to make these kinds of deals."

Getting a top-six caliber winger was the Penguins' top priority as the Feb. 24 deadline approaches, but Rutherford isn't likely to unplug his office phone and put his feet up on the desk just because he has landed Zucker.

"The nice thing is, we've got 10 days to two weeks to see where we go from here," Rutherford said. "And then we'll decide."

To continue reading, log into your account: