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Penguins GM Jim Rutherford Must Act, NOW



Jim Rutherford By Michael Miller (Own work) | CC BY-SA 4.0

Patience is a virtue. Good things come to those who wait. So on and so forth. After Matt Cullen departed for the frozen lakes of Minnesota, the Pittsburgh Penguins are down to two legitimate centers on the NHL club and about $3.2 million dollars to fill those gaps ($2.4 million if the Penguins carry Derrick Pouliot on the NHL roster). With the season just weeks away, Penguins GM Jim Rutherford no longer has time to be patient. The clock is ticking. Loudly.

Each passing second diminishes the Penguins position. They won’t be dealing from a position of strength, but if they wait, it could well become a position of weakness.

Human nature. The Penguins have a chance for a historic run which would etch their names among the all-time greats; Gretzky’s Oilers, Bossy’s Islanders, Lafleur’s and Richard’s Canadiens. The ask for every potential solution must be a little higher when Rutherford calls.

And now the Penguins need two “solutions” at center. What team in the Eastern Conference wants to see the Penguins at full strength? None.

Many will suggest Carter Rowney is one solution at center, but that is likely wishful thinking from fans and posturing from the Penguins. Rowney was a solid defensive winger on the fourth line, last season, however, his offensive production is not commensurate with a full season stint in the middle. His skating is also questionable for a center in the Penguins system. In a pinch, Rowney could fill the role, but he is not a long term solution.

Consequences for Waiting

A lack of two centers capable of combining for 24 minutes per game, will have cascading consequences. Rutherford stated that if the Penguins must wait until midseason to add a center, having Crosby and Malkin could make up for a lot of shortcomings.

The first, and largest consequence would be asking too much, too early of the star centers. After two straight seasons with more than 100 games, rolling the pair over 20 minutes per night in the first half of the season could make exhaustion a serious consequence when the real season begins in April.

By waiting, other teams with a need in the middle could beat the Penguins to the punch. Injuries could occur, making the Penguins targets unavailable–either as an injured party or needed to fill spaces in their team’s lineup.

Also, statistically, teams which are waiting to see if a young player will supplant their current veteran centerman are more likely to be disappointed than elated by the young player’s performance. In other words, paying a premium now helps the Penguins, as several teams could be convinced to gamble on young centers being ready.

The situation could change to the Penguins benefit and a very good center falls to them. Pittsburgh has no shortage of rosy optimists who will publicly make this case. But the inverse argument is just as likely, if not more so…

Just Rip the Band-Aid

This offseason, the Penguins paid their restricted free agents full market value, totaling about $12.6 million dollars. Justin Schultz cashed in for $5.5 million, while Brian Dumoulin hit the register for $4.1 and Conor Sheary passed Go to collect $3 million. So, the piggy bank is about empty. To receive a player of impact, they will need to also send away salary.

If it were as simple as dealing Carl Hagelin and his $4 million salary, the deal likely would have already been done. Part of the reason the Penguins may be dragging their feet is–the decision will likely cost them a more valuable piece of their championships and/or a chunk of their future. Such decisions aren’t easy.

The benefit to acting now, in addition to avoiding the consequences, is the chance to evaluate the team from the beginning. Is the addition working? Do the Penguins need more additions?

By acting now, Rutherford will give himself maximum flexibility to rebuild his bottom six, which has been essential in the Cup runs. If he waits until December or January to chase a legitimate pivot, he may only get one chance. A deal made now can be fixed later if needed.

Rutherford’s Success

To Rutherford’s credit, he has been nearly perfect over the past two seasons. In fact, his moves in 2014-15 were also shrewd moves partially undone by bad luck.

But every GM is brilliant…until the day they are not. One inaction or destructive move can undo several good moves. Fortunately for Rutherford, he is correct: Having Crosby and Malkin can make up for a lot of deficiencies.

By acting now, he’ll have a chance to solve his large deficiency and be able to take another swing if his first attempt fails. Failure to act now will place a huge burden on his current roster before the games truly count.

Inaction could be as destructive as a bad trade, except by acting now the bad trade can be fixed. Inaction can’t. It is time to act.

Tomorrow–we’ll discuss WHO Rutherford should be shopping to bring the proper return.

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Pittsburgh Hockey Now Editor-in-Chief, formerly 93.7 The Fan, Sportsnet Hockey Tonight, NHL Home Ice. Catch Dan tweeting @theDanKingerski and the official @pghhockeynow account.

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