The constantly tinkering Pittsburgh Penguins are at it again, moving on from Alex Galchenyuk not too long after acquiring him in the Phil Kessel trade, instead bringing in Minnesota’s Jason Zucker. Along with Galchenyuk, the Wild get prospect Calen Addison and a conditional 2020 first-round draft pick.
Galchenyuk may be the biggest name going out West, but Addison was arguably the Penguins’ top prospect, and even a late first-round pick might be a bigger part of the deal than the struggling Galchenyuk.
Since being traded by the Montreal Canadiens less than two years ago, Galchenyuk has struggled to carve out a niche for himself both in Arizona last season and Pittsburgh this season, despite acknowledgement from those in charge that he had been working hard to do so.
Zucker and Galchenyuk have each played 45 games this season, with Zucker experiencing the highest shooting percentage of his career and Galchenyuk the lowest, which really hurts Galchenyuk’s value because he’s more of a one-dimensional offensive player. Zucker has had the better fortune, but who has produced more offence overall this season?
Bit part usage might be a factor for Galchenyuk here, but the fact is that Zucker outpaces him offensively by nearly every measure this season. He’s a slightly better shooter by both volume and quality, though Galchenyuk does produce more off the cycle, but shooting isn’t where the big separation is.
Throughout Galchenyuk’s career, the big issue with his offence has been that he hasn’t been capable of making great passes consistently while playing on the wing, and his shot volume hasn’t been high enough to be a primary shooter on a line either. At centre, his playmaking is much better, but his defensive issues have kept coaches from trusting him to play that position.
Zucker is a stellar playmaker from the wing position, completing slot passes at a first-line forward rate — the same rate as new teammate Jake Guentzel, in fact. The Penguins are a high-end offensive team that loves to make big passing plays to achieve higher quality shots, so being able to complete those more often from his natural position sounds like a good fit on paper.
Like his ability to get the puck to the slot, Zucker is an excellent rush attacker, producing scoring chances off the rush at the same rate as Mathew Barzal, Matthew Tkachuk, and Jack Eichel this season. Those are lofty comparables not to be scoffed at, putting him right in the middle of all top-line forwards in that characteristic.
Offence is all well and good, but how do each of these players’ teams perform when they’re on the ice compared to when they’re on the bench? Both Zucker and Galchenyuk have played against relatively weak opposition this season, and in terms of differentials, neither has had a banner year.
Zucker is a historically strong player who isn’t having a great season by most measures, but Galchenyuk is just being buried whenever he’s on the ice. Despite Zucker having a negative impact overall on shot-based differentials in Minnesota, adding him in place of Galchenyuk should see the team make huge strides there.
The biggest change between Zucker and Galchenyuk once again lies in passing, where Zucker has been an elite-level slot pass controller this season, both by completing tons of his own passes, but also by cutting down the opposition’s ability to make their own. Galchenyuk has been a disaster.
Passes to and through the middle of the ice are one of the most important areas of the game and being poor at defending can cause your goaltenders to not only get beat more consistently, but also overwork them by forcing more explosive lateral movements. For any goaltender who is struggling with confidence or losing their net once in a while, being forced to be more erratic just to square up for shots is a death by a thousand cuts.
Creating a situation where your teammates complete tons of passes to and through the slot in the offensive zone turns that back on your opponent, and can overcome poor shot and scoring chance differentials for long stretches. The Winnipeg Jets, for example, have outperformed their shooting numbers by controlling passes at an extreme rate for multiple seasons.
Zucker’s control of on-ice passes pushes the needle for his expected goal differential this season into the 94th percentile of all forwards, despite being generally outshot while he’s on the ice.
While the Wild acquire a reclamation project and two strong future assets, the Penguins get a very good player who appears to fit perfectly into the game they try to play.