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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.

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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.

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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.

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A lifelong hockey addict, Matt has been fortunate enough to make his career in his sport of choice, working in high school, juniors, college and the pros in various multimedia roles. Previous to joining PHN, Matt was a credentialed Penguins/NHL beat reporter for the past two seasons, including coverage of the 2017 Stanley Cup Final. He signed on with PHN in Feb. 2018 as co-owner, contributing commentary and analysis in various forms.

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8 Comments

8 Comments

  1. RandomHockeyGuy

    July 2, 2018 at 12:53 pm

    Nice article, Matt. The Penguins weakest position on in the organization right now is LW. It was last season and will continue to be this season. Penguins moved Sheary, who I felt needed to move, but did not “upgrade” the LW spot if Cullen does indeed start on the LW. Much better defensively, but, if Jake Guentzel goes down for any length of time, production for the LW is going to be quite poor. Grabner would have fit here for 3.35M by simply not putting Simon on the big club. Grabner at 3.35M plus Johnson at 3.25M, 6.6M. Penguins shipped out 5.25M in Sheary and Hunwick. They would still have plenty to resign Oleksiak.

    I feel the add of Cullen gives Rutherford the flexibility to move Brassard for a winger if he finds a deal he likes. Sheahan slides up to 3C, Cullen to 4C, and Blueger as next center up. I am keeping my eye out for some type of Brassard for Skinner or Brassard for Pacioretty type deal. All 3 players are UFAs after the season, although, I still can’t see Skinner working out very well if Sprong and Kessel are on the wings too.

    • Matt Gajtka

      July 2, 2018 at 3:13 pm

      The more I look at the Grabner deal for Arizona, the more I think the Pens could’ve pulled it off. Unless they have something in the works trade-wise …

  2. Ricardo58

    July 2, 2018 at 2:59 pm

    The GM commented the 3rd pairing on D lacked a puck mover. I thought Ruhwedel did fine in that role and Oleksiak jumped into the O zone too at times and had some success. Thus, GM signs Johnson and claims he can move the puck well.
    GM comments the team lacked some leadership last season. I find that comment to sting as the core of the Pens returned from successive Cup wins. Cullen is signed. How poor was the leadership then? 87, 71 and 58 are designated leaders. I would like to hear specifically from those 3 concerning the GM comment.
    Agreed the team isn’t better after July 1. More work to roster is needed to maximize the small window to earn another up. Go Pens.

  3. Matt Luda

    July 2, 2018 at 3:09 pm

    Now The Pens have five veteran centers, which makes one expendable.

    Brassard for Paciorrity solves the biggest problem, a proven scorer with size and experience at left wing.

    #JustDoIT

    • Matt Gajtka

      July 2, 2018 at 3:12 pm

      That would be quite the get!

    • Matt Luda

      July 2, 2018 at 3:31 pm

      Uh, that’s Pacioretty . . .

  4. John Chergi

    July 2, 2018 at 10:28 pm

    It’s difficult to capture the Cup every year. Penguins eventually succumbed to around 300 games in 3 years counting all the playoff tussles. That wearing and tearing plus Tom Wilson goonery finished off the PENS. Hockey is also a game of inches. PGH hit about 10 posts in the series vs. WASH. The Kunie hit pipe OT Game 6 the biggest one. Had PGH forced Game 7, they would have had gorilla sized pressure on their backs. I’d like the PENS bring in Skinner or Wheeler. Blake Wheeler is 1 of my FAV players. I hope Sid and some of the Big stars boycott the early part of the year until Tom Wilson is banished from the league. His play will eventually injure another player or have them permanently maimed.

  5. Severin Brägger

    July 3, 2018 at 8:02 am

    Trade Brassard for skinner! would love that!

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