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Zulgad: What a deal: Wild GM hits a home run in dealing Jason Zucker to Penguins

Bill Guerin made his first significant trade as general manager of the Minnesota Wild on Monday and it’s hard to see it as anything but a home run. In a move that came exactly two weeks before the NHL trade deadline, Guerin sent Jason Zucker to the Pittsburgh Penguins for forward Alex Galchenyuk, young defenseman Calen Addison and a 2020 first-round pick that is lottery protected.

Guerin did not an outstanding job of getting a significant return for a winger who had been demoted to the fourth line and had been the subject of trade speculation dating to last season. The nice thing about the trade is it should be a win for both sides. The Penguins were looking to replace injured winger Jake Guentzel (shoulder surgery) and now will be able to do so with Zucker. Zucker, who had 14 goals and 15 assists in 45 games this season in Minnesota, should thrive in Pittsburgh, especially if he plays on a line with Sidney Crosby.

But that doesn’t mean Guerin made any mistakes in the deal with his former boss, Penguins general manager Jim Rutherford. Guerin was Rutherford’s top assistant in Pittsburgh before becoming the Wild GM in late August after Paul Fenton was fired following only one season. In fact, Guerin was still with the Penguins when they worked out a deal last offseason that would have sent Zucker and center Victor Rask to Pittsburgh for winger Phil Kessel and defenseman Zach Johnson. Kessel, however, had the power to veto the trade and he did. He was eventually dealt to Arizona.

That marked the second time that Fenton had come close to moving Zucker. The first was at the trade deadline last season when an issue with paperwork stopped a deal with Calgary from being completed. Fenton, nonetheless, was busy in his one season on the job, dealing winger Nino Niederreiter to Carolina for Rask; winger Mikael Granlund to Nashville for Kevin Fiala; and winger Charlie Coyle to Boston for Ryan Donato.

This went a long way toward breaking up a core of young players that had never managed to help take the Wild on a deep playoff run, despite six consecutive postseason appearances. The unpopular Fenton was shown the door by owner Craig Leipold in late July but Guerin’s trade proves that Fenton, although lacking in tact, had the right idea.

The 28-year-old Zucker was a second-round pick by former Wild GM Chuck Fletcher in 2010 and departs Minnesota fourth in franchise history with 132 goals and ninth with 243 points. He had a career-high 33 goals in 82 games in 2017-18 and was signed to a five-year, $27.5 million contract extension in July 2018. While Zucker had a list of 10 teams to which he could block a trade and showed the ability to score goals, moving him began to make more and more sense.

One primary reason was because the Wild is expecting 22-year-old standout left winger Kirill Kaprizov to leave the KHL and join them next season, meaning room had to be created at that position. Zucker also had recently been moved to the fourth line by coach Bruce Boudreau and, although he was moved back to the second line during a loss to Colorado on Sunday, it was clear the continued rumors of Zucker to the Penguins were likely to become fact.

That was true in part because it was not as if Guerin has a lot of players he can deal — Zach Parise, Ryan Suter, Mikko Koivu and Mats Zuccarello are among those with no-move clauses — and replenishing an organization from which Fletcher had traded plenty in the name of going for it was necessary.

In Galchenyuk, the Wild obtains a 25-year-old who can play left wing or center and is worth a look in the final season of his contract. Galchenyuk, the third-overall pick in the 2012 by Montreal, spent his first six seasons with the Canadiens before being dealt to Arizona for Max Domi. He had 19 goals and 22 assists and was a minus-19 in 72 games with the Coyotes in 2018-19 before being obtained by the Penguins in the trade that sent Kessel to Arizona last June. Galchenyuk has had a disappointing season in Pittsburgh, scoring only five goals with 12 assists (he’s a minus-7) in 45 games.

If the Wild doesn’t like what it sees from Galchenyuk in their final 27 games this season, they can let him walk. If Guerin likes him, there’s a chance Galchenyuk will take short-term, prove-it contract. The most attractive part of the trade to Guerin had to be the first-round pick, which is lottery protected and can be pushed to 2021 if the Penguins miss the playoffs this season (that’s highly unlikely), and also adding the 19-year-old Addison.

The Penguins’ second-round pick in the 2018 draft, Addison has 10 goals and 43 points in 39 games this season to put him fifth in scoring for Lethbridge of the Western Hockey League. Four of his goals and 16 of his assists have come on the power play. Addison was a key part of Team Canada’s gold medal win at the 2020 World Juniors, scoring a goal and adding nine points in seven games. Scott Wheeler of The Athletic ranked Addison as the Penguins’ top prospect before the trade.

The Wild will enter Tuesday’s game against Vegas at Xcel Energy Center sitting five points out of a playoff spot. But Guerin’s willingness to trade Zucker is likely just the start with the deadline approaching. It won’t be surprising if he feels comfortable dealing a defenseman, Matt Dumba or Jonas Brodin are the likely candidates, with Addison now in the potential mix for 2020-21. Eric Staal, 35, has a 10-team no-trade list but also could be moved to a contender that needs a third-line center.

While coach Bruce Boudreau undoubtedly feels pressure to win this season because he’s in the final season of his contract, Guerin has no such pressure and likely realizes trying to sneak into the playoffs is a shortsighted plan for this franchise. Draft picks and prospects are far more valuable, considering they will represent hope for an organization that needs it.

Guerin, like Fenton, realized this after taking a long look at what he had. Zucker might have been a fan favorite but he needed to be traded for the right return. On Monday, Guerin found that return and proved he isn’t shy about playing let’s make a deal.


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