The Calgary Flames currently sit at 5-5-1 on the season, which happens to be the exact same record the team was at through 11 games last year. Their play should be described as a mixed bag thus far since the team has had some excellent, mediocre, and down right disturbing performances. It’s tough to tell if the Flames will follow a similar trend as last season, or if they will head in the other direction.
The one thing the Flames appear to be seriously lacking in right now is consistent offensive production. Although the Flames did not lose any major pieces from their forward group (insert James Neal joke here) the team got so many career seasons out of core players that they were bound to take a small step back.
Right now, the Flames have only been able to score 2.55 goals per game, which lands them in a tie for 22nd in the NHL. With the lines consistently switching, and the Flames looking for a bit of a spark, it’s time to wonder whether the team should revisit an old trade target in order to achieve such a goal.
Jason Zucker, currently playing for the Minnesota Wild, was targeted on two separate occasions this year alone. At the 2019 NHL trade deadline, it was rumoured a deal was extremely close, but fell through at the last minute due to a timing issue. That trade would have sent Michael Frolik and the team’s first round selection in June, which is now Jakob Pelletier, to the Wild for Zucker. The Flames revisited this deal again in May when it was subsequently rumoured again they were trying to acquire the 27-year-old LW from the Wild. That trade would have seen Frolik and/or Sam Bennett heading back in the other direction, but as you can tell nothing ever came from that.
Although it is only 11 games into the season, it’s not unlikely that GM Brad Treliving is already gauging the market out there and trying to find any way to improve his team. Zucker may well be the player that still fits this lineup perfectly.
Zucker is currently entering his ninth NHL season, all of it spent with the Wild. Here is how his career thus far has stacked up:
It took a little while for Zucker to get started in his NHL career, but he burst onto the scene in 2014-15 with 21 goals. Over time, he developed his game from just a goal scorer into more of a well rounded player, culminating in 2017-18 where he played a full season and posted 33 goals, 31 assists, and a 0.78 PPG rate.
Over the previous three seasons, Zucker has been a top-tier player at 5v5. Using the TWC Player Offensive Evaluation Tool, his offensive output relative to the rest of the league is measured.
A well-above-average player in terms of puck possession and individual shot generation, his style of play benefits any line he’s on, and his presence on the ice would be a welcome addition to the Flames. Despite being average when it comes to scoring at even strength, playing among the dynamic Flames forwards could bode well for Zucker’s scoring rates too.
Isolating the 2018-19 season, it was not Zucker’s best, even though he posted his third highest PPG rate and a strong 53.2% CF%. As the Wild struggled as team, so did Zucker, and spending the majority of last season as a trade candidate could not have been easy.
That being said, Zucker is off to a better start this year, even with his team severely struggling. With three goals in his first nine games, Zucker still has his scoring touch that the Flames would covet should they explore a trade. He also spends a lot of time on the Wild top powerplay unit, which is an area the Flames should look to improve upon.
This type of deal would not be a clear cut transaction, there are a lot of moving parts the Flames would need to consider before going after Zucker in a trade. First being, who is going back the other way?
The Flames’ Trade Chips
The initial thought on this would be that Michael Frolik and Sam Bennett are the obvious candidates for the Flames to consider. The wrinkle in that is the fact that new Wild GM, Bill Guerin, was not involved in previous trade talks. Therefore, there is no guarantee the Wild would be interested in either player, especially after their starts to the season.
If the Wild traded Zucker, they would be trading away their number one LW who is signed through 2022-23 at $5.5M per season. The Wild won’t just give him away based on their poor start. So what can the Flames realistically offer?
For a start, they could put Frolik and Bennett back into the discussion, but what would the appetite be for either player? The Wild currently have Zach Parise and Mats Zuccarello platooned on their RW, who are two older and expensive wingers. Adding Frolik to that wouldn’t make a ton of sense from the Wild’s perspective.
Bennett is a much more intriguing selection for the Wild. Although it would be extremely hard for Flames fans to accept, Bennett could benefit from a change of scenery after having a tough start to his season. Placing him back down the middle would be a fit for the Wild, as their current center depth is quite thin.
Other players such as Austin Czarnik and Mark Jankowski, or a wealth of draft picks, could also be dangled in front of the Wild to sweeten the pot, but there would need to be a bigger salary piece in order to consummate a deal. The likes of any other player on the Flames roster, such as a T.J. Brodie or Travis Hamonic, would end up hurting the Flames’ depth more than the added benefits of Zucker.
Salary Cap Implications
The biggest issue that would come between the Flames acquiring Zucker would have to be the salary cap. Currently performing an interpretive dance routine around the salary cap, the Flames have virtually zero wiggle room to work with. If they wanted to acquire Zucker, they would need to move out money seeing as they only have $174,629 in space at this point in time.
The even trickier aspect is the Wild aren’t faring that much better. They currently sit at $1,216,637 in space, which gives them a bit more flexibility than the Flames, but not by much. With Jason Zucker’s $5.5M cap hit, the Wild would be able to take on a total of ~$6.7M and be right up to the cap. The Flames subsequently would need to move out ~$5.4M, if not more, to be able to accommodate Zucker.
A Flames package of Frolik and Bennett would be too much money for the Wild to take on, but a Frolik and Czarnik one would be an equal exchange of money. The Flames could also offer Frolik and a selection for Zucker, but would need the Wild to retain a percentage of his cap hit to make it work. That would be the most likely path right now, but if the Wild even want to retain Zucker’s salary for the next four years for such a return remains to be seen.
Depending on who the Flames move out the team would have to also find a place for Zucker to play. The top line LW spot is locked up in Johnny Gaudreau, and so is the second line spot with Matthew Tkachuk. This could be a time for the Flames to revisit moving Tkachuk to the top line, and then anchoring Lindholm and Zucker with Backlund on the second line, but would that make a lot of sense?
The Flames could also explore a Zucker – Derek Ryan – Czarnik combination, or other options instead of Czarnik. The real importance would be ensuring Zucker does not fall below the third line, and possibly even the second line either. Frolik’s biggest concern right now is that he is playing on the fourth line with Milan Lucic and Mark Jankowski, which frankly is far too expensive of a line to have in the team’s bottom six group.
Let’s make a deal
The team would have interesting decisions to make on all fronts, but there is no denying that Zucker would make the team better right now and for the rest of the season. Additionally, being signed to a longer term deal gives the Flames a bit of financial security over the next few years as they will have numerous decisions to make with a few pending free agents.
The structure of a Zucker deal and the currently salary cap implications makes it very difficult for Treliving to manoeuvre. There are enough complications that he could wait and see what happens over the next few weeks, or even months, before exploring any trade options.
In Zucker’s case, Guerin has just recently made it clear that he is not in the business of losing hockey trades – he wants trades to be right for both teams. So with the Wild struggling, maybe it’s time to call up the Flames and see what could be exactly that: a trade that is beneficial for both the Flames and the Wild.
Do you think the Flames should trade for Zucker? Let us know in the comments below.
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