Grove: Jim Rutherford Does It Again With Zucker Deal

The Penguins GM shows he wants to win now

Bob Grove
February 11, 2020 - 10:12 am

PITTSBURGH (Newsradio 1020 KDKA) - Jim Rutherford, like Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin, has won three Stanley Cups. And the Hockey Hall of Fame general manager, like the future Hall of Fame centers who play for him, is looking for more.

Hence the trade he made yesterday, sending top defensive prospect Calen Addison, a first-round draft pick and spare part Alex Galchenyuk to Minnesota for left wing Jason Zucker, a three-time 20-goal scorer and a one-time 30-goal scorer on a middling Minnesota team.

Rutherford marked Zucker as a wanted asset last summer, when only Phil Kessel's veto of a trade reportedly stopped Zucker from coming to Pittsburgh, and the resolve of the Penguins' GM to get the 28-year-old Zucker only increased when Jake Guentzel was knocked out of the lineup until at least May with a shoulder injury on Dec. 30. 

Zucker is not quite a scorer of Guentzel's caliber -- there are few of those around -- but he promises to deliver a chunk of the goals the Penguins would have expected from Guentzel going forward into the playoffs. With Malkin and Bryan Rust established as linemates, recent games have only underscored the need for another top six forward to play alongside Crosby, and Rutherford has delivered.

Addison is a marvelous prospect who played a big role in helping Canada to the World Junior Championships last month, and he's one of the best defensemen in the Western Hockey League. A player like him, along with a pick that looks destined to be late in the first round of a good draft, is the price of doing business when you're trying to win a championship and your trading partner has an eye mostly on the future. Galchenyuk is Minnesota GM Bill Guerin's nod to his current players that he's not giving up on a playoff berth this season, although the Wild are going nowhere even if they do get in.

This deal makes sense in every way from every angle for both teams, and don't get yourself wound up trying to declare a winner this morning. We'll know who won, or whether both teams won, in a few years. Zucker has three more years left at $5.5 million, and Addison won't turn pro until next season and may not reach the NHL for another two seasons. Can the Penguins win another Cup in those next three years? Will Addison live up to his promise and become a key piece for the Wild as they restructure their team?

We'll see.

But here in Pittsburgh, no one can look sideways at Rutherford for making this deal. It's essentially the same deal, minus some ancillary parts, that he made in bringing Phil Kessel to Pittsburgh in the summer of 2015. He sent a first-round pick (#30) and a prospect (Kasperi Kapanen) to Toronto for Kessel; the Penguins won consecutive Cups with Kessel as a big factor in both. Zucker doesn't have Kessel's playoff production, but he's also never played on a team with this much talent and certainly has never played with a guy anything like Crosby. And he gives the Penguins more speed as they double down on what differentiates them from Boston or Washington and what will help them compete with Tampa Bay in the East.

One thing that's different about this deal vs. the one that brought Kessel here? Zucker costs $1.3 million less per season and is a much better player without the puck than Kessel ever was. 

Beginning next season, Rutherford will have a 40+ goal scorer in Guentzel and two 20-25+ goal scorers in Zucker and Bryan Rust at a total cost of $15 million. That is some really good budget work right there. 

While this trade serves, as we've said, to underscore Rutherford's philosophy to go big while Crosby and Malkin are in the lineup, it also makes an important statement to his entire team. Rutherford appreciates what they've accomplished so far under Mike Sullivan -- fourth in the NHL overall standings despite 226 man-games lost -- and he's got their back. They've suffered an injury that is potentially fatal to their hopes of making a long playoff run, and he's not going to sit back and curse their luck. He's giving them every chance to succeed, and that will not be lost on any of his players.

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