Trade Block to Essential, Zucker & Pettersson Wash Away Bitter Tastes

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Almost exclusively, the offseason analysis, salary cap projections, and Pittsburgh Penguins roster projections mentioned potential NHL trade bait Jason Zucker or Marcus Petterson. As the Penguins roster projected to exceed the salary cap, both were the primary source of speculation.

Both make a significant salary, and both had a sour taste from disappointing personal seasons last year.

Zucker had only 18 points (9-9-18) in 38 games. In addition to missing time with a leg injury, Zucker never found his rhythm. It was his first “full” season with the Penguins after the team acquired him from the Minnesota Wild for trade pieces, including the Penguins’ first-round pick and top defenseman prospect Calen Addison.

Zucker made more than a few people question if the Penguins trade was a good idea.

“Last year was awful, to be honest. I didn’t like my game at all. I thought there were some really good points and some really bad points. For me, it was a good summer for me to adjust my game and feel really good coming into this year,” Zucker blasted himself in training camp.

Marcus Pettersson was the cat’s meow of the Penguins acquired him for Daniel Sprong in December 2018. Anaheim didn’t think Pettersson was a regular NHL defender, and the Penguins didn’t think Sprong would become an NHL player, at least with them.

Pettersson immediately earned ice time and a regular role on the Penguins blue line. After playing for his qualifying offer in 2019, because the team didn’t have enough cap space to give him more, his five-year, $20,125,875 contract kicked in last season.

“I felt like last year I kind of wasn’t that aggressive. I was looking for an extra play, or whatever. Same in the D-zone–(I want to be) more aggressive, trying to stop plays early so we can get on the offense just as a team,” Pettersson said during the September training camp.

With a $4.025 million AAV, Pettersson did not have a good season in 2020-21. He admitted that at the end of the season and again in training camp. The warts of his game showed.

Fast forward through 17 games of a chaotic 2021-22 Pittsburgh Penguins season, and both players are laying waste to their seasons of swoon, and both are playing some of their best hockey since arrival.

Pettersson’s d-partner John Marino noticed, too.

“We’re both playing at a high level. You can see his game has really come along and he’s playing well right now, and it’s easy to feed off that,” Marino said after practice on Oct. 20.

Just How Good?

Zucker has been especially good, especially beside Jeff Carter. Zucker currently has the highest Corsi (56%), shots-for (58.8%), and expected goals-for (58.8%) of his career.

But those are just the advanced numbers. He has seven points (3-4-7) in 16 games. His shooting percentage (6.7%) is lower than usual, so if he begins to bury a few more chances, his points should align with career highs, too.

It’s a significant course correction for a player who makes $5.5 million for this season and next.

In terms of advanced statistics, Marcus Pettersson is well above career highs. He’s having the best season of his young career.

Pettersson is on the plus side of every ledger: Corsi (53.7%), shots (55.6%), expected goals-for (57%), scoring chances (55.6%), and the biggest difference is in high-danger scoring chances (59.6%). All stats are courtesy of naturalstattrick.com. 

Considering the Pittsburgh Penguins blue line has been wrecked by injuries, Pettersson’s elevation is in the face of playing with different defense partners and partners who are depth defensemen in the organization.

In other words, Pettersson has boat raced his previous career standards despite playing with Juuso Riikola, Mark Friedman, and Chad Ruhwedel.

It’s probably not a coincidence that Pettersson’s new partner, John Marino, is seeing a turnaround, too.

Look, the knocks on Pettersson were not secret. Opposing forechecks gobbled him up. As he turned to go back on pucks, he was in trouble. His offensive contributions were limited to the first pass out of the zone, and even those seemed to dip last season.

Pettersson is shooting more–and it’s obvious. At the fun blue line, he’s looking for shot lanes and not giving up easily.

Assertive is a good description for his game at both ends of the ice.

Pettersson’s AAV over $4 million is no longer an issue. A second-pairing D-man with four points (1-3-4) in 12 games and a healthy plus-7 rating is worth at least that.

Back in training camp, Mike Sullivan acknowledged Pettersson’s disappointment in his own game.

“I think he self-assessed is extremely well. He might be harder on himself than any of the rest of us. And that’s just an indication of, you know, of the type of person that he is,” Sullivan said. “But our expectation and our hope is that we can help him get to another level as well.”

That mission appears to be going pretty well. Pettersson beat himself up just a bit. If his own words don’t read that way, the tone surely did.

And his play is making a statement this season, too. Pettersson has been one of the consistent pillars of the Penguins season.

Maybe he should stick around for a while, and it sounds like you agree.