The move was such a low profile that many didn’t notice. This month, Pittsburgh Penguins GM Jim Rutherford quietly signed former LA Kings, Buffalo Sabres, and St. Louis Blues grinder Jordan Nolan to an AHL contract.
The move could have a big impact. Literally.
The 31-year-old fourth-liner won a pair of Stanley Cup rings in LA (2012, 2014) and lifted the Cup with St. Louis in 2019 (though he did not qualify to have his name on the 2019 Stanley Cup). For six years, he was a noticeable part of the tough LA lineup, which outlasted Chicago in the Western Conference and ground opponents into submission.
“We like this player. We will see how camp goes,” Rutherford said via video conference on Monday. “At any time, we can flip his American League deal to an NHL contract. He brings a dimension to his game that is important for teams.”
That important “dimension” to which Rutherford referred is a grinding physical presence. Nolan has never dished more than 123 hits in any of his eight previous NHL seasons, but at 6-foot-3, 219 pounds, his hits can leave bruises.
He’s also an agitating type player who gets under opponents’ skin.
He can also play out of control and take bad penalties.
He’s also a LW and could assert himself on the Penguins fourth line as Zach Aston-Reese is still on the mend from shoulder surgery and should be out until February. The Penguins sacrificed Patric Hornqvist for salary cap purposes in the offseason and have perilously little jam in their lineup.
Nolan has bounced between the AHL and NHL over the past two seasons and played more games in the AHL than the NHL. Last season, St. Louis signed him to a one-year deal but banished him to the AHL with the San Antonio Rampage where he played 60 games. He split 2018-19 between San Antonio and 14 games with the Buffalo Sabres.
He’s become a journeyman, but he also possesses a few tangibles which the Penguins lack.
The list of Penguins who play with big shoulders, aggression, and ill intent is currently limited to Brandon Tanev. Newly acquired Kasperi Kapanen, who should remain on the Penguins’ top line, also has some sandpaper in his game. But the pair combined isn’t exactly an overwhelming force.
Earlier this month, PHN boldly asked the questions — Are the Penguins tough enough?
We consulted none other than Scotty Bowman, among our list of sources and contact. The consensus of our hockey people was the Penguins are not tough, but they are gritty and tenacious enough to be successful. However, we talked with the hockey insiders before the 56-game NHL schedule with small series was agreed upon.
A little bit of toughness could go a long way. Nolan is an agitating sort, too. So, he may have to dial down the agitation because the only person able to handle the blowback would be Nolan himself.
There are a few names on Nolan’s fight card that you may know. According to HockeyFights.com, Nolan dropped the mitts twice with former Penguins enforcer Tom Sestito, and once each with Milan Lucic, Chris Neil, and Andrey Pedan.
However, Nolan is not a player to be utilized with big ice time. Only once in his eight-year career has he averaged more than 10 minutes per game. Yet, the big winger, who is also a First Nations, Ontario native, generally racks up penalty minutes.
In his last 83 NHL games split over two seasons with Buffalo and St. Louis, Nolan has 83 penalty minutes and 155 hits. In that time, he also has four goals and six assists.
More players may take less or compromise what they thought the market would bear in the currently clogged NHL trade market and stagnant free agent pool. Nolan was no exception as the NHL veteran of 375 NHL games accepted the Pittsburgh Penguins minor-league deal.
Rutheford confirmed Aston-Reese’s injury rehab is on schedule. The winger had left-shoulder surgery in mid-August, just after the Penguins were defeated in four games by the Montreal Canadiens in the NHL Qualifying Round. His recovery timetable is six months, which puts his return in mid-February.
Given the truncated NHL schedule, that could be at least 15 games. There will be a vacancy on the left side of the Pittsburgh Penguins lineup and a need for physicality.
Perhaps Nolan can muscle his way into another NHL job.