A few months ago, everything seemed so simple — and perfectly logical — for the Pittsburgh Penguins.
Jason Zucker was entering the final year of his contract — the one that includes a $5.5 million salary cap — and general manager Ron Hextall seemed to have little reason to offer him another.
Zucker did, after all, break into a top-six role when he was acquired by Minnesota on Feb. 10, 2020, but had just 23 goals and 24 assists in 94 games in his first more than two seasons with the Penguins.
Even more troubling, after changing clothes for all 15 games he was here for before the pandemic cut short the 2019-20 season, Zucker found himself injured 18 of 56 games in the 2020-21 season and 41 of 82 in missed last season.
Not meeting offensive expectations is bad enough; Fair or not, a player sitting out so many games due to physical issues, like Zucker’s core muscle problem that required surgical repair, could be even more troubling for a team’s decision makers.
For those reasons, earlier this season Zucker looked like a good candidate to continue, whether because another club was interested in signing him or because the Penguins would simply choose not to re-sign him if his Contract expires next summer.
It wasn’t personal. Zucker’s dedication and work ethic has never been questioned and is probably one of the reasons he seems so loved and respected by his teammates and coaches.
But pro hockey is a bottom line business, and the Penguins didn’t get much of a return on the investment they made to acquire Minnesota sugar — a first-round pick, defensive candidate Calen Addison and forward Alex Galchenyuk — or on the salary , which they paid him.
And then the first quarter of the 2022/23 season happened. Suddenly, nothing about Zucker’s future is as obvious as it seemed in early fall.
Yes, he’s missed two of the Pittsburgh Penguins’ first 19 games, but he’s also flourished alongside Evgeni Malkin on the No. 2 line.
Although Zucker didn’t play a major role in Sunday’s 5-3 win in Chicago – he was credited with just one shot and was on the ice for only one goal scored by the Blackhawks forward Philip Kurashev – He was visible and productive far more often.
He has five goals and 10 assists in 17 games, which only puts him behind Sydney CrosbyJake Guentzel and Malkin in the team competition, and his speed and relentlessness make him an excellent forechecker.
And while his fearless style can certainly increase the risk of downtime injuries for a 5ft 11, 192lb man, Zucker is only 30 years old, suggesting he could still be a few years into his prime.
Well, 19 games is an extremely small sample size – a lot can, and likely will, change over the course of this season – but Zucker’s strong start could certainly irk Hextall as he tries to figure out how to approach Zucker’s long-term future.
Are you treating him like a man who can’t be counted on because injuries keep him out of the lineup so often, or someone who can reasonably be expected to score about a point a game for quite a while?
And of course there are other things to consider, notably the impact that keeping sugar would have on the Pittsburgh Penguins’ salary cap.
He is one of six players currently on their major league roster set to qualify for the unrestricted free hand in 2023 – the others are Tristan Jarry, Teddy Blueger, Danton Heinen, Josh Archibald and Brian Dumoulin – and there’s reason to believe Hextall will try to keep the majority of them.
The details of the NHL’s 2023-24 salary cap could have a profound impact on his ability to do so.
The Penguins are believed to have about $63.5 million for players on their roster. and league officials have projected a minimum cap increase of $4 million when players’ escrow debt to the league is repaid this season. If not, the significant increase in the cap would come in 2024-25 and it would rise $1 million from its $82.5 million level in 2022-23.
Raising the cap significantly could make a lot of things possible for many teams.
Hextall must also evaluate the stable of potential backups should Zucker go, regardless of whose decision that would be. That means free agents who don’t re-sign with their clubs before the summer, as well as players currently in the Pittsburgh Penguins pipeline, will be evaluated.
At least in the short term, there are few, if any, viable top six forwards there. And no one currently in the third and fourth line of penguins can realistically be expected to stand in for Zucker for any length of time, let alone permanently.
Mind you, Hextall could always try to trade for a second-line left winger, but as Minnesota’s asking price for sugar showed, they don’t come cheap.
Two months ago that seemed like an option he might need to explore, and perhaps still will.
But it’s also entirely conceivable that Zucker will continue to be effective and productive – which by implication means being healthy enough to stay in the lineup – and convincing Hextall that he’s part of the future of the game well beyond next spring should be franchised.