Jim Rutherford publicly threw down the gauntlet on the Pittsburgh Penguins weekly radio show in November. The blunt assessment from the Penguins GM which sent shockwaves through the fanbase and media was intended to rattle the Penguins locker room. Immediately after Rutherford boldly wondered aloud if the Penguins were stale, the countdown to the Penguins first big trade began.
Rutherford made one move then another directly related deal before the trade deadline. But did the GM succeed?
On Nov. 14 the shoe dropped after the Penguins flatlined to the New Jersey Devils and dropped to 14th place in the Eastern Conference. The Penguins shipped the fast skating but light scoring Carl Hagelin to Los Angeles for suddenly struggling Tanner Pearson. Pearson was part of the LA Kings most recent Stanley Cup run in 2014 but had just one assist in the first 17 games this season.
Rutherford swapped the 30-year-old Hagelin for the 26-year-old Pearson. But the move didn’t work. Pearson had just 14 points (9g, 5a) in 44 games and was generally not a factor despite significant time beside Evgeni Malkin.
At the trade deadline in February, Rutherford was able to trade Pearson who became bad contract ($3.75 million for two more years) to Vancouver for tough but sinking defenseman Erik Gudbranson who is owed $4 million for two more years, too.
Gudbranson, 27, admitted he was not comfortable in Vancouver. Western Canadian fans also loudly agreed that Gudbranson indeed struggled. However, Gudbranson was perfectly reliable and even a little bit of revelation for the Penguins. He provided a needed presence on the right side and was a required hammer for the Penguins stars.
From the start of the season until the Feb. 26 trade deadline, the Penguins traded and traded again from the valued Hagelin to a questionable defenseman known more for his character and toughness than his defending skills.
The adverse reaction in Pittsburgh was swift, loud and justified. Rutherford defended the trade as he cited the Penguins belief Gudbranson had additional skills they wanted to unlock.
Hagelin-Pearson-Gubranson Grade: C-
The C grade means the trade is even and perfectly average. The minus means the Pittsburgh Penguins were just a little worse off. The Penguins also attempted to reacquire Hagelin at the trade deadline but were prevented by a loophole in the CBA as teams which deal a player but hold back salary cannot reacquire that player. (Yeah, that makes no sense to me either). The try spoke volumes.
The Penguins were able to replace Hagelin’s small offensive contributions with the much less expensive Dominik Simon, but Hagelin provided several more layers such as special teams work and superior speed.
Perhaps Hagelin could have pushed the Penguins in the playoffs or kept Evgeni Malkin’s season on the rails? We’ll never know.
Now, let’s make a couple points crystal clear: The grade is not a reflection of Gudbranson. The recent spate of hate on Gudbranson via social media seems more comical than legitimate.
Rutherford was able to salvage the failing Hagelin for Pearson deal by acquiring Gudbranson. Rutherford (eventually) turned Hagelin’s expiring contract into Gudbranson, which itself isn’t a wrong move.
The other point to make very clear goes far deeper. As the Penguins later learned, Hagelin was a needed asset and could have been part of the solution. It’s a matter of conjecture, but the stale feeling and need to shake up the Penguins in November can be traced back to last June when the Penguins declined to make any bold moves involving the Penguins core.
In the perfection of hindsight, the Penguins could have balanced their defense long before the trade deadline and kept Hagelin who provided speed and the cascading effects of it. Had Rutherford taken more difficult actions last summer, perhaps things would have been more stable.
The Hagelin to Pearson to Gudbranson process best exemplifies the Pittsburgh Penguins lack of stability. Rutherford did indeed save face and acquire a useful player but it didn’t need to be that iffy. The Penguins took a gamble on Gudbranson who was not good in Vancouver. It paid off but in the end, it all seems a lot of work to break even.
And that’s how we grade the trades. Rutherford gets an F for the Pearson deal and an A for the Gudbranson deal, so it all averages to about a C, give or take the plus or minus.