Buffalo signed Jason Zucker on Monday. ©2024, Micheline Veluvolu

Sabres sorely need grit, leadership and versatility veteran Jason Zucker offers

BUFFALO – During his four-year tenure in Pittsburgh, Sabres newcomer Jason Zucker regularly enjoyed plum assignments skating alongside legendary Penguins centers Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin.

Zucker, who believes his speed and forechecking ability are his top assets, added to grit to the future Hall of Famers’ lines, retrieving pucks and utilizing his 5-foot-11, 192-pound frame to wreak havoc around the net.

“If pucks end up in the corners, go get them back and let their skill take over,” Zucker said on a Zoom call Wednesday. “I’m not afraid to be at the net, stand at the net and kind of take a beating net-front throughout a game. I think I have a knack around the net, too, to get open and find soft spots.”

Zucker’s aggressive, fast style should help any line. The 13-year veteran’s ability to play up and down the lineup was a major reason the Sabres signed him to a one-year, $5 million contract Monday shortly after free agency opened.

Realistically, as the roster stands right now, Zucker, 32, likely has a spot on the Sabres’ first or second line.

They sorely need scoring, especially after buying out winger Jeff Skinner. Zucker should slot in nicely at left wing alongside centers Tage Thompson or Dylan Cozens.

Zucker, who mostly played with Malkin in Pittsburgh, said Thompson, defenseman Rasmus Dahlin, winger Alex Tuch and some of his other new teammates possess talent similar to the Russian’s.

“I can use my assets – my speed and my forechecking, my grit and those things – to let those guys accentuate their skill and maybe have a little bit more room, have a few more touches in the O-zone,” said Zucker, who has scored 196 career NHL goals, including 14 last season with the Arizona Coyotes and Nashville Predators.

Zucker’s leadership qualities also appealed to the Sabres, who traded captain Kyle Okposo late last season and did not re-sign winger Zemgus Girgensons, an alternate captain and their longest-tenured player.

Having entered the NHL with the Minnesota Wild in 2011-12 and played 697 games, he has more experience than anyone on Buffalo’s roster.

“Talking to Lindy (Ruff) and Kevyn Adams, that’s kind of what they want from me is to bring kind of the veteran leadership side of things,” Zucker said.

Zucker said he advocates having confidence. He wants the Sabres, a team that owns an NHL-record 13-year postseason drought, to enter the season saying, “We’re going to go make the playoffs.”

Of course, the Atlantic Division and Eastern Conference have a slew of Stanley Cup contenders, so Zucker, a California native, wants the Sabres to carry “that confidence and that swagger from Day One” and never relinquish it.

“It’s just going to build,” he said. “And ultimately, once it starts building, you’re going to go through the hard stretches. … You’ve just got to try to limit them. It can’t be a five-, six-, seven-, eight-game skid. It can be two or three, and then you’ve got to try to stop it and get back on the horse again and just keep going. For me, that’s kind of what I’m going to try to bring.

“When I was in Pittsburgh … that was something we harped on. It was the consistency of making sure that every single night you brought it and it was just as meaningful from game one to game 82.”

Zucker said he spoke to Ruff, who’s beginning his second tenure as Buffalo’s coach, about the importance of having a fast start. Traditionally, teams that stand in a playoff spot around Thanksgiving or Christmastime usually remain there.

“All these guys have a crazy amount of skill and have played the game enough to know you can’t get behind the eight ball to start a year,” Zucker said. “… We’re going to push hard to start the season and just kind of keep going from there.”

Zucker respects Ruff – “Lindy’s reputation is incredible,” he said – and said he keeps getting coaching jobs for a reason. When Zucker faced the Devils during Ruff’s last stop in New Jersey, they played a fast-paced, high-skilled game.

“But he tried to make sure that he has enough grit within his lineup to complement that skill, and I think that’s something that he does a very good job of when he’s honing his teams together,” Zucker said.

Adding grit has been the Sabres’ top offseason priority. In signing Zucker, center Sam Lafferty, winger Nicolas Aube-Kubel and defenseman Dennis Gilbert and trading for winger Beck Malenstyn, they believe they’ve addressed that need.

“The physicality is a lot of fun to watch,” Zucker said. “So I think for us, we’re going to be bringing more of that. I think it’s going to make us a lot harder to play against next year.”

2 thoughts on “Sabres sorely need grit, leadership and versatility veteran Jason Zucker offers”

  1. A lot of Sabres fans aren’t happy with GM Adam’s signings. The names aren’t sexy enough. I love the free agents we signed. Tough, competitive vets, hard on the forecheck, get to the net…..all traits this team desperately needed. Let’s go Sabres !!

    1. Totally agreed. We don’t need high salaried big names. We have stars already, they just need to apply themselves consistently, and get called out in the locker room if they aren’t producing, and especially if the effort isn’t there.

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