Zucker feeling healthy, excited to have Letang, Malkin back with Penguins

Zucker feeling healthy, excited to have Letang, Malkin back with Penguins

EDINA, Minn. — jason zucker is feeling better and is optimistic about this season with the Pittsburgh Penguins for a few reasons.

The forward, who was limited to 41 games last season because of a number of injuries, is skating again and playing in Da Beauty League, a 4-on-4 summer hockey league for NHL, American Hockey League and NCAA Division I players living in Minnesota.

“I’m excited,” the 30-year-old said after playing his first game Wednesday. “It’s been really slow for me, but it’s been really good. It’s nice to be back skating again, and I’m just excited to get healthy and be ready to have a healthy season this year.”

Zucker played the first 30 games of 2021-22, but issues began in January when he missed seven games because of a lower-body injury. He returned Jan. 17 but didn’t feel right and had core-muscle surgery Jan. 25. That kept him out until March 31, but in his first game back, he sustained a lower-body injury that kept him out three games. Then he sustained another lower-body injury April 25 that kept him out the final regular-season game and the first two games of Pittsburgh’s seven-game loss to the New York Rangers in the first round of the Stanley Cup Playoffs.

“I was chasing the whole year, and it’s unfortunate,” said Zucker, who had 17 points (nine goals, eight assists), his fewest in a season since 2013-14. “But everyone goes through that at some point in their career, and for me it just happened to be last year. So I’m excited to get that out of the way. It’s a contract year for me, so I’m coming ready to play.”

Zucker is entering the final season of a five-year, $27.5 million contract ($5.5 million average annual value) he signed with the Minnesota Wild on July 25, 2018. He was traded to the Penguins on Feb. 10, 2020.

Video: BOS@PIT: Zucker beats Swayman glove-side

He’ll have some help this season showing what he can do, as the Penguins were able to keep much of their core intact during the offseason.

That includes three-time Stanley Cup champions defenseman Kris Letang and center Evgeny Malkin.

Letang agreed to a six-year, $36.6 million contract ($6.1 million AAV) on July 7, and Malkin agreed to a four-year, $24.4 million contract ($6.1 million AAV) on July 12. Each could have become an unrestricted free agent if not signed by July 13.

“It’s really fun to have those guys back,” Zucker said. “They’re obviously unbelievable players and they’re the reason why Pittsburgh has been so successful. It felt right that they’re back. It would have been very odd and awkward not having them in that locker room.”

Penguins forward Jake Guentzelanother Da Beauty League regular, said the Penguins wouldn’t feel the same without Letang and Malkin.

“We’re so happy,” Guentzel said. “Two superstar players that mean so much to the city of Pittsburgh and the organization and it couldn’t be a better situation to have both of them back to help this team.

“We’ve had good times together in the past. We all want to win. It hasn’t gone our way the past couple years, but I feel we have a good team, and we can make a good go at it this year .”

Last season the Penguins (46-25-11) finished third in the Metropolitan Division, but their loss to the Rangers was the fourth straight season Pittsburgh was eliminated in the first round or qualifying round of the playoffs. The Penguins last won a postseason series in 2018.

But with Letang and Malkin back, a healthy Zucker and the additions of defensemen Jeff Petry, Jan Rutta and Ty Smiththere is still a lot of confidence.

“We get another chance to go for it,” forward Teddy Blueger said. “To have those guys around again, the leaders of this team, and obviously bring in a few new additions, I think it will be great for all of us.

“I think we have a real chance at a deep run this year.”

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