Inside the NHL: Jason Zucker is betting on himself to bring Sabres some offense


Staff member

Jason Zucker has scored 20 goals in a season six times in his NHL career including a 27-goal campaign two years ago in Pittsburgh.

He says he can do it again in Buffalo. Just give him the chance.

“A lot of it’s about deployment,” Zucker said last week during a video call with Buffalo reporters. “There’s so many aspects of my game that I feel I can play up and down the lineup. But at the same time, if you look up and down on essentially any roster, the point productions as you go down the lineups typically decrease. In Arizona, there was a ton of skill at the top of the lineup and I kind of got slotted in at that third-line role.”

Sabres free agent signee Jason Zucker needs four goals to reach 200 for his career. Mark Humphrey, Associated Press
Zucker had 14 goals in 69 games last season with Arizona and Nashville. His big 2022-23 season in Pittsburgh came on a line with Evgeni Malkin, and he got a chance to play with Sidney Crosby, too. The Sabres are undoubtedly still looking for a second-line left winger to replace Jeff Skinner in their top six but Zucker signed a one-year deal for $5 million and might get a chance alongside Dylan Cozens if General Manager Kevyn Adams can’t unearth anybody else.

“My expectations of myself are a lot higher and and I still feel that I have that aspect in my game,” Zucker said of his scoring ability. “And I think I showed that at certain points ... even when I got to Nashville at the end of last season. I know it’s still there. I know my speed is still there. When I look at my playoffs in Nashville, I was happy with how I played. I think I still have that element.”

Some numbers match Zucker’s point: In all situations of the six games Nashville played against Vancouver, the Predators had 62% of the shots on goal, 60% of the expected goals and 67% of the high-danger scoring chances when Zucker was on the ice. At 5-on-5, all those numbers were at least 54%. That’s called driving play.

Fellow new acquisition Sam Lafferty played with Zucker in Pittsburgh and was thrilled to learn they would be reunited here.

“High skill level, but also the hockey IQ and the awareness of knowing where to be at the right time,” Lafferty said of Zucker on his video call with Buffalo media. “I’ve always just been impressed with his compete level and the intensity he brings every single day to the rink.

“He scores a lot of goals, goes to areas that guys don’t want to go to around the net. He’s not afraid to mix it up and just compete all over. He was a player I always looked up to when I was in Pittsburgh and admired his compete level.”

Zucker said playing for a Lindy Ruff-coached team raised his interest in playing for the Sabres, given the way Ruff mixed skill and grit with his teams in New Jersey.

“And playing against Buffalo the last few years has not been a fun game to play with the amount of (forward) talent and the ‘D’ corps and I think it’s only getting better.” Zucker said. “I’m looking forward to bringing that little bit of a veteran side of things. My style of play is more a gritty style so hopefully I can bring that aspect along with a lot of the skill on this team.”

Since March, the Sabres have transformed more than half of their forward core. Gone are Casey Mittelstadt, Kyle Okposo, Jeff Skinner, Victor Olofsson, Zemgus Girgensons, Eric Robinson and Tyson Jost. In are Zucker, Lafferty, Beck Malenstyn, Nicolas Aube-Kubel and Ryan McLeod.

As constructed by Adams for Ruff, the team is clearly faster up front and harder to play against. You might bemoan goals lost, but wasn’t it clear that the shelf life of Skinner and Olofsson had expired here and there was little chance they could play for a Ruff team?

The Sabres have made major strides with their bottom-six forward group, a key priority to the offseason. Let’s see what transpires in the upper half. It remains early in the summer.

Sayonara, Savoie​

The firestorm of protest from Sabres fans and the derision of the Canadian media that greeted the trade of Matt Savoie to Edmonton struck this corner as very odd.

In Ryan McLeod, the Sabres acquired a guy who just played 105 games this season in Edmonton, all the way to Game 7 of the Stanley Cup Final. He can win faceoffs and distribute the puck. He can kill penalties, too. The Sabres now have a No. 3 center on their roster.

We all think Savoie might turn into a good player but nobody knows for sure. He’s small and can’t stay healthy for one thing, and no longer projects as a center in the NHL. He was going to need to play all of this season in Rochester and last week’s drafting of Konsta Helenius − a pure center − made him expendable.

You groom your prospects to develop into NHL players but sometimes you groom them to trade them and fast-forward your team. How long are fans willing to wait for some of these guys? Jiri Kulich has already played 119 games in Rochester and scored 51 goals there but doesn’t seem like he’s making this club this season. Savoie has just eight AHL games on his resume and is at least another year or two from the NHL.

The Sabres can’t wait on kids anymore. Adams sure can’t. The fan base is so bedraggled by the playoff drought it no longer knows what it wants. A leather-lung yells “Make a trade, Kevyn” at Adams after the 3-on-3 tournament Thursday in Harborcenter, the GM makes a big deal on Friday and everyone says, “Why did you trade him?”

You can’t have it both ways.

Wings declined ‘major surgery’​

Red Wings GM Steve Yzerman let out an interesting secret during his meeting with reporters Thursday at the end of development camp. It seems the Wings had big interest in one unrestricted free agent but opted against moving forward because it would have required what Yzerman called “major surgery” to fit him in under their cap.

No indication who it was, but the guess here was that it was former Tampa Bay captain Steven Stamkos. He got four years and $32 million from Nashville and the Wings instead moved on to Florida winger Vladimir Tarasenko and signed him for two years and $9.5 million.

Bolts move on​

Speaking of Stamkos, how cold was Tampa Bay GM Julien BriseBois during his dealings with his captain? This wasn’t some fringe player or some over-the-hill veteran. This was the iconic, all-time franchise player whose number should be in the Amalie Arena rafters some day.

He’s coming off a 40-goal, 81-point season and averaging 39 goals and 90 points the last three years. There seems to be regression in Stamkos’ defensive game (a career-worst minus-21 rating this year) but none on the offensive side of the puck. This was his seventh 40-goal season and you just let him go? Bizarre.

As for the Predators, by signing Jonathan Marchessault to a roster that already has Ryan O’Reilly, Nashville becomes one of three teams with multiple former Conn Smythe Trophy winners on their roster. O’Reilly won with St. Louis in 2019 and Marchessault with Vegas in 2023.

The other two teams are Pittsburgh (Malkin and Crosby) and Tampa Bay (Victor Hedman and Andrei Vasilevskiy). Stamkos has not won the award.

Panthers names hitting the Cup​

The process of adding the 52 names of the Florida Panthers’ players and staff to the Stanley Cup has begun in a Montreal silversmith shop. Vegas GM George McPhee apparently hit on a great idea in 2023 by asking if the names could be added before the Cup’s annual summer tour to each champion’s home.

“I think George started an instant tradition last year,” Hockey Hall of Fame keeper of the Cup Phil Pritchard told last week. “It’s a natural, a no-brainer.”

The next six champions, through the 2029-30 season, will reside on the bottom band of the Cup. In a report by league historian Dave Stubbs, the current top band of winners on the trophy will be removed in 2030 and retired to the Hall of Fame vault to make room for a new band with the next 13 champions − and that will be a significant deletion from the Cup.

That’s because the top band currently has eight Montreal Canadiens champions from 1966-78, as well as the 1970 and ‘72 Boston Bruins, the ‘74 and ‘75 Philadelphia Flyers − the latter of which beat the Sabres in the Cup final − and the 1967 Toronto Maple Leafs, the franchise’s last champion.

That means the Flyers and Leafs will be off the Cup entirely starting in 2031 unless they win another title in the next six years.

Around the boards​

Williamsville’s Andrew Poturalski signed a two-year, $1.6 million deal with San Jose ($800,000 NHL, $500,000 minors). Poturalski, 30, only got two games in Seattle last year but was a key veteran for Coachella Valley in its back-to-back runs to the Calder Cup finals, where it lost to Hershey both seasons. Poturalski, who had 15 goals and 51 points in 60 games this season, has played 468 career AHL games.

• Incoming Niagara University freshman Trevor Hoskin was picked by Calgary in the fourth round of the draft at No. 106 overall after being named MVP of the Canadian Jr. A level. The 20-year-old right winger exploded for 42 goals and 100 points in 52 games for Cobourg (Ontario), and added 11 goals and 28 points in 18 playoff games.

• Canisius University sophomore Jackson Nieuwendyk, son of Hall of Famer and three-time Cup champion Joe Nieuwendyk, attended Seattle’s development camp last week. Former Ice Griffs goalie Jake Barczewski, who led Canisius to the 2023 NCAA Tournament and backstopped Michigan to the Frozen Four in March, was at Colorado’s camp. Barczewski signed an AHL contract for next season in April to play for the Colorado Eagles.

• Speaking of the Ice Griffs, new Sabres center Ryan McLeod has an older brother, Matt, who played at Canisius from 2015-18. Matt McLeod has played for Belfast in the English league the last two years.