As the old saying goes, if at first you don’t succeed, try, try again. And after swinging and missing on an attempted acquisition of Jason Zucker from the Wild this past off-season – Phil Kessel triggered his no-trade clause to nix the deal – Pittsburgh Penguins GM Jim Rutherford has circled back and executed a deal for the 28-year-old by shipping Alex Galchenyuk, blueline prospect Calen Addison and a conditional 2020 first-round pick to Minnesota.
In moving on from the Wild, where it had become increasingly clear he was not going to be part of the eventual rebuild or retooling process, Zucker finds himself set for a fresh start under quite possibly the best circumstances as the offensive potential for winger alongside one of Sidney Crosby or Evgeni Malkin is tantalizing. A four-time 20-goal scorer prior to this season who is again on pace for 20-plus goals, Zucker has long been a top-six fixture, but what he’ll get in Pittsburgh is the chance to play alongside a pivot the caliber of which he has not had in the past.
The expectation, of course, is that he’ll flourish, and Zucker will undoubtedly be given every opportunity to do so. His skill set seemingly makes him the perfect wingman for either Crosby or Malkin, as well, as Zucker is speedy, has the hands to finish and, as he showcased during his career-best 33-goal, 64-point, can put up big numbers when he gets rolling. That he has those tools makes him another weapon for a Penguins team that has plenty, especially once this roster is finally healthy. He’ll add to a top six that includes not just Crosby and Malkin, but Jake Guentzel and breakout scorer Bryan Rust, who is on pace for 75 points this season. It’s a group that now appears almost unassailable when at full strength.
Among the best parts of the deal for Pittsburgh, too, might be that this isn’t a one-and-done scenario. In acquiring Zucker, who has three years at a manageable $5.5-million per season remaining on his contract after the 2019-20 campaign, there’s an opportunity for him to not only settle into the lineup across the remainder of this season, but build on whatever chemistry he might discover in the top six and build on it moving forward. Given that’s the case, it’s not the least bit farfetched to believe Pittsburgh has found a fit not just in the short term, but the kind of long-term fixture that can replace a portion of the offense that was lost when Kessel was moved along in the off-season and do so with some decent cap savings.
However, despite any long-term potential the Zucker acquisition possesses, there’s no mistaking what this really is for the Penguins: a statement of intent. In moving out one of the top prospects in the system in Addison as well as a first-round pick at a time when they were already without a second-round selection, it’s blindingly obvious that the Penguins are once again set to go all-in ahead of the deadline. That means adding where they feel they must add, utilizing the tradable assets at their disposal and gearing up for another post-season run in which they will attempt to ride the brilliance of Crosby and the power of Malkin to the winner’s circle for a third time in five seasons.
And, frankly, who in their right mind is going to blame Rutherford and Co. for taking that shot? Despite the Penguins’ roster being as banged up, battered and bruised as any other NHL outfit, Pittsburgh entered Tuesday a mere four points off the Metropolitan Division lead. The Penguins stayed afloat for a prolonged period without Crosby and have stayed competitive in spite of an injury list so long that only five players have appeared in all 54 games this season. And there’s plenty about the way Pittsburgh has played this season, particularly defensively, where they’ve surprisingly been one of the most sound clubs in the NHL, that lends itself to believing these Penguins have what it takes to reach the post-season summit again.
It’s that the window has so clearly opened itself again that has given Rutherford every reason to pull the trigger on a deal that includes two future pieces, and it’s for that same reason that few would be surprised if this isn’t the last time we see the Penguins move a prospect or a pick ahead of the Feb. 24 trade deadline. Pittsburgh possesses few pieces the likes of Galchenyuk, a pending unrestricted free agent who was so clearly a square peg-in-round hole type with the Penguins, and that means much of the Penguins’ work ahead of the trade freeze will have to be done using players who were slated to be part of the future. That’s the cost of searching for silverware in the present, and it’s evident Pittsburgh is willing to pay that price.
To be sure, there will come a time, likely not all that far from the time when the stars of both Crosby and Malkin begin to fade and the duo is long past the height of their powers, that all of this will come back to bite the Penguins. Not once in the past seven drafts has Pittsburgh made a top-20 selection, only twice have they made a pick in the top 40 and the continued pursuit of present-day success with precious little focus on restocking the cupboard has resulted in a prospect crop that is as thin or thinner than that of any other NHL franchise. An organization can only carry on that way for so long before the situation comes to a head and the well runs completely dry.
But that day is not today. And with Zucker in the lineup, whoever else Rutherford deems fit to add and a roster that could and hopefully will be entirely healthy by the time the games matter most, there’s a more than fair chance Penguins faithful will be able to dry those future tears using yet another Stanley Cup banner.