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Gajtka: Summer’s Just Starting, But Penguins Running In Place So Far

Jim Rutherford’s most interesting comment on July 1 had nothing to do with his new signings.



Michael Miller (Own work) [CC BY-SA 4.0]

Jim Rutherford‘s comments about the nature of Jack Johnson‘s subpar play late last season got major play in Columbus and general NHL circles, but that wasn’t the most interesting thing the Penguins’ fifth-year general manager said Sunday afternoon up in Cranberry Township.

Before ending his session with reporters at UPMC Lemieux Sports Complex, Rutherford mentioned that he expects there to be some trades around the league for at least “the next two or three weeks,” before midsummer sluggishness sets in.

I can’t be alone in reading that to mean that Rutherford still has some irons in the fire. Knowing his history as an aggressive GM who frequently finds a way to acquire his intended targets, I’d probably place a bet on further roster movement before July is complete.

Penguins fans should hope that’s the case, since what the Penguins have done over the past week is unlikely to improve this team’s Stanley Cup chances at all.

Before I go further, there are reasons to believe the additions of Johnson and (surprise!) Matt Cullen could produce at least minor rebounds. Both free-agent signees are coming off what could easily be called their worst NHL seasons, so there very well could be a dead-cat bounce in 2018-19.

Perhaps Johnson is a better fit with the Penguins for a variety of reasons, most notably the one skill set where he has a decent chance of standing out among his new blue line buddies:

Hey, that’s something at least, even in Johnson continues his career-long trend of playing much more in his own zone than the opponent’s. Five years is a long time to commit to a project, which Johnson appears to be, but we’re just now beginning to understand the breakout value of defensemen. Not playing against top players every night should help, if Mike Sullivan and Jacques Martin can find a way to protect him.

On the other end of the spectrum, there’s Cullen, who will turn 42 in November. Apparently that much-hyped swan song in Minnesota didn’t take, probably because Cullen has a bad taste in his mouth from how things went under the coaching of Bruce Boudreau.

Cullen was already showing some minor signs of decline in his second Penguins season, but there will be no excuses in 2018-19. He knows the system, he knows the coach and he knows most of the players. Less than a million isn’t much to commit, even for a cap team, so the risk is minimal in that way.

All that being said, have the Penguins gotten better? Even with an optimistic tack, it’s difficult to argue that case definitively.

When including the Conor Sheary salary dump to Buffalo into the calculations, that makes the offseason even more of a question mark. I still find it hard to believe Rutherford offloaded Sheary and the devalued Matt Hunwick simply to acquire Johnson, but there’s a small chance this might be the roster that reports to training camp in September.

If that’s the case, then the Penguins got older and not necessarily better. That runs counter to how a team with late-prime stars should probably operate. To be accurate, it runs counter to how Rutherford has run the Penguins over the past two or three years. The general trend has been to get younger and faster, the Ryan Reaves acquisition aside. Hunwick didn’t work out, either, but the bet placed there was on skating ability, and in today’s game that brand of risk can be forgiven.

With less than $3 million of cap space post-Canada Day, the Penguins are in a position where any trade to add a potential difference-maker will require a move of a veteran salary. I went over those possible permutations last week here.

Despite social-media protestations to the contrary, I still give Rutherford and his staff the benefit of the doubt, even though the Jason Botterill influence — or lack thereof — is tough to quantify. Every decision should be judged independently, although the bigger picture should be kept in mind, too. Overall, how can we say Rutherford hasn’t done well?

That’s why the fact I keep coming back to is that summer ain’t over yet. I’m willing to write off last offseason’s stagnation as a combination of circumstances and momentary lapses in judgement. Rutherford is smart and savvy, as are several people under his employ.

The man who finagled Phil Kessel and Derick Brassard to town under unlikely circumstances probably has something else in the works. And he certainly should, if he hopes for real improvement for his team.