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Penguins Can't Afford to Buyout Jason Zucker

The Pittsburgh Penguins can't put themselves in a tougher spot to move on from Jason Zucker.

In the midst of the Colorado Avalanche and Tampa Bay Lightning going head-to-head in an electric Stanley Cup Finals, the Pittsburgh Penguins are shaping their offseason plan. They’ve already re-signed Bryan Rust but have yet to agree on a contract with both Evgeni Malkin and Kris Letang.

Most models project that, if re-signed, the duo would cost the Penguins anywhere between $14-17 million on the cap this season. The Penguins currently have $23.2 million in available cap space. Obviously, keeping both around will eat up a vast majority of that number and hamstring what the Penguins could do to fill the other glaring gaps on their roster. Rickard Rakell, Evan Rodrigues, Kasperi Kapanen, Danton Heinen, and Casey DeSmith are the Penguins’ other free agents of note.

An idea that has been floated around in the past week has been to buyout the services of winger Jason Zucker. I’m here to tell you that such a move is not one that would benefit the Penguins all that much.

Zucker’s cap-hit is $5.5 million for the upcoming season, a figure that ranks third on the team currently. An extension for Letang and/or Malkin would likely be higher than that. So, at worst, Zucker has the fifth highest cap-hit on the team for the 2022-23’ season.

When watching Zucker play, it is hard not to notice him. He is a hard-nosed, gritty guy that gives you his maximum effort, and then some, on a nightly basis. The Penguins were a better team for that in their playoff series against the New York Rangers. Zucker battled through a litany of injuries and even had to sit on an altered seat on the bench just to stay comfortable when he wasn’t on the ice. The guy is a warrior.

Some guys have intangibles that are hard to put a price on. Zucker’s maximum effort and good locker room presence are a good thing to have around on a team. His injury history in Pittsburgh is what has hampered the Penguins and given people reason to want to get off the contract. He’s only played in 94 games across three seasons, with two of those being shortened campaigns.

I could certainly make the argument that, if Zucker was consistently healthy, no one would have an issue with his contract. He has 23 goals and 47 points across those 94 games. That’s a fairly productive player and it’s easy to think he could have more points across that time with consistent playing time and not coming out of the lineup as often as he has.

This all goes without looking into the ramifications towards the Penguins’ cap space if the Penguins bought out Zucker.

Such a move would save the Penguins $3.4 million on the salary cap in 2022-23’, which would leave the Penguins on the hook for just over $2 million on the books for a player not on their roster. In 2023-24’, the Penguins would then have to eat $1.7 million of dead cap space for Zucker to play in another uniform. They’re already on the hook for nearly $2 million this season and $916,000 for the following three seasons for buying out defenseman Jack Johnson. Zucker’s potential and quality of play when he is in the lineup doesn’t warrant a buyout. That $3.2 million would be nice for this season to play with but having to find someone to replace Zucker would be harder, and more expensive, than just bringing Zucker back as a top-six winger.

Attempting to trade Zucker could come into play if the Penguins wanted cap space without having to outright get rid of him for nothing. I still don’t know if such a move would be something that makes the Penguins better. For what it’s worth, Zucker does have a 10-team no-trade clause in his current deal.

Saving $3.4 million in cap space in one player could be done by finding a suitor for Jeff Carter ($3.125 AAV), a forward that is currently 37-years old and will turn 38 by the time next season ends. The 30-year-old winger who has proven to be a 20+ goal scorer when he stays on the ice and brings the invaluable intangibles off-the-ice on top of that is worth keeping around for the final season of his contract.

In the end, he could play well enough to warrant a short-term contract in Pittsburgh after this that could come at a cheaper rate because his overall body of work didn’t live up to his current contract. Or, he plays so well and prices himself out of Pittsburgh after this season which would ultimately be a positive for the Penguins in the upcoming season anyway.

Keeping Zucker in Pittsburgh this season feels like an easy move. The Penguins have a few defensemen on high AAV contracts that probably rank higher on the list of players General Manager Ron Hextall would prefer to move anyway.

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