Erik Haula, Carl Soderberg, and Anthony Duclair didn’t just sign for peanuts. After months on the NHL free-agent market and with the season approaching, the trio signed for peanut dust compared to what they were worth. Haula and Soderberg were the premier third-line centers on the NHL free-agent market, but the Chicago Blackhawks signed Soderberg for just $1 million on Saturday. So what about the Pittsburgh Penguins?
Excluding Jared McCann, whom the Penguins coaches believe is more dynamic on the wing, Teddy Blueger had the best season among the down-line center candidates with just 22 points. Another possible third-line center Mark Jankowski scored just seven points (5g, 2a) in 56 games for the Calgary Flames last season. He was a healthy scratch for five of the 10 Calgary postseason games.
Haula, who signed with Nashville for $1.5 million, scored 24 points (12g, 12a) in just 48 games. Soderberg’s defensive game is solid, and last season he scored 35 points (17g, 18a) for Arizona.
Yet, sources confirmed the obvious to Pittsburgh Hockey Now; the Penguins did not make a serious run at either. On Thursday, we opined on that matter without fear or favor.
This leads us to something a league source who works for a rival team told PHN a few weeks ago.
“When (Rutherford) locks in on a player, he can be stubborn,” the team source said.
The comment was NOT a criticism, but an acknowledgment Rutherford usually gets his man, eventually. Kasperi Kapanen is a prime example. Rutherford reportedly kicked the tires on the newly (re)acquired winger for over a year. Kapanen was the Penguins’ 2014 first-round pick before Rutherford dealt him to Toronto in the 2015 Phil Kessel acquisition.
So, too, is Jason Zucker a perfect example. In the summer of 2019, Rutherford attempted to acquire Zucker in exchange for Phil Kessel. After Kessel vetoed the trade, the Penguins GM finally landed his prize in January for defenseman prospect Calen Addison and a pick, which became the Penguins 2021 first-round pick (the Penguins also dumped struggling winger Alex Galchenyuk on Minnesota in the trade).
But, back to the source conversation.
“I think Jim is waiting for (player name removed),” the source said.
We’ve removed the player’s name from the quote because the source doesn’t work for the Penguins, and the source didn’t specifically cite first-hand info but expressed a belief based on internal chatter.
And I specifically don’t want this to be an “NHL trade rumor” piece. That’s not the point you should take away, though it is something we’ve been periodically checking. The name has been previously reported.
But is saving salary cap space for an impact trade the primary reason Rutherford sidestepped at least a pair of free agents who would have instantly improved the Penguins roster?
There are only a few possible answers to that question.
Could Rutherford believe that Jankowski is equal to Haula or Soderberg? Has the COVID pandemic affected the Penguins’ finances so that a couple or a few million dollars is an important saving?
The Penguins currently have $1.3 million in cap space but could grow that number to well over $3 million by placing a pair of depth players on the taxi squad.
Or, is the Pittsburgh Penguins GM is palming enough cap space to acquire an impact player who he thinks could help or even change the dynamics of his team.
In a matter of days, opposing teams have scooped up the cream of the second wave free-agent crop. There are no longer free agents who could solidify the bottom of the Penguins line up, and so we’re left with the above options … and the belief of at least one rival.
The Pittsburgh Penguins training camp begins seven days hence. The season opens with the Philadelphia Flyers in 17 days. And the roller coaster will begin with a rapid-fire 56 games against only divisional opponents. Every single game will be a four-point game. Every single game.
Perhaps you’re as curious as I am when, or if, the chain of events begins.