Before the Pittsburgh Penguins lifted their second consecutive Stanley Cup, Jim Rutherford began planning the Penguins roster for another championship run. On draft day, Rutherford acquired Ryan Reaves, signed defenseman Matt Hunwick on July 1, and signed restricted free agents Justin Schultz and Brian Dumoulin. However, the free agent losses and the lack of a third line center trade leave Rutherford’s offseason coursework incomplete.
It hasn’t been a great offseason for the Penguins GM.
Rutherford’s work for the Penguins has been extraordinary. Even his moves which didn’t provide results, such as the 2015 deadline acquisition of Daniel Winnick, were the right moves. Fans and this writer are forgiven for assuming he has an ace yet to play. However, he hasn’t yet played it.
Free agent signee Greg McKegg will be the third line center until one is acquired. McKegg was the surprise of camp, but the bar was not set high. McKegg could be a solid fourth line center, but his preseason faceoff percentage was a paltry 43.5%. His offense is below average for a third line center and his penalty killing prowess is untested.
Of course, if the imminent trade occurs or another trade for a third line center happens before the beginning of the season, Rutherford’s grade will change.
Rutherford’s summer talks culminated in Rutherford’s acquisition of tough winger Reaves from the St. Louis Blues for center Oskar Sundqvist and an admission that another deal for a center was “imminent”. More than three months later, that trade hasn’t occurred. And the Blues used the first round pick which the Penguins included in the deal to select Klim Kostin. Kostin wowed the Blues rookie camp, rookie tournament, and even Blues training camp.
Reaves is a better NHL player than Sundqvist, even as Sundqvist awaits his roster fate in St. Louis. However, losing out on Klim and the lack of another third line center doesn’t score well for Rutherford.
Rutherford’s Internal Work
Rutherford also paid full market value for his restricted free agent defensemen Justin Schultz and Brian Dumoulin ($4.1 million). In fact, Schultz’s contract, 3 years for $5.5 million, may have been a little over full-value.
Other moves were lateral or a downgrade, though the salary cap necessitates great teams lose players.
The Penguins suffered free-agent losses. Nick Bonino, Trevor Daley, and Matt Cullen left for greener pastures. The Penguins signed 32-year-old defenseman Matt Hunwick for $2.25 million AAV to replace Daley, but Hunwick lacks Daley’s offensive ability.
Rutherford also coughed up a 2020 second round pick to ensure Vegas would select Marc-Andre Fleury in the expansion draft. Vegas GM George McPhee later admitted they were going to select Fleury, anyway.
The most surprising loss, Matt Cullen, is the one which hurts the least.
The Penguins player development has been great. Mike Necciai of PHN detailed the Penguins success. Perhaps the best it has ever been. Conor Sheary, Jake Guentzel, Bryan Rust, Scott Wilson and Brian Dumoulin are now part of the Penguins core. Carter Rowney gets special mention, and Zach Aston-Reese and Daniel Sprong are on the way.
Player development that good can offset any errors and remove urgency to acquire a legitimate third line NHL center.
However, the Eastern Conference is deep and talented this season. PHN will review the Eastern Conference playoff picture as part of the season preview this week, but there are no less than 12 teams which will legitimately challenge for a playoff spot. The New York Islanders and Tampa Bay Lightning missed the playoffs last season with 94 points.
In other words, the Penguins won’t have two months to roll with third and fourth line centers who are not able to fill the job well.
Sources have told PHN Rutherford is indeed waiting on the Red Wings, which is also causing a hold-up signing Danis Zaripov. There comes a point when others move on and options are no longer available.
Or, in a matter of minutes, Rutherford could go from an incomplete grade to an “A+”.
The Red Wings and/or Rutheford are playing a dangerous waiting game. Until that game is complete, or there is some resolution to the Penguins third line center position…in the best Dean Wormer voice, Jim Rutherford’s grade is…incomplete.