As of Monday morning, the Pittsburgh Penguins had a workable roster that complied with the NHL’s salary cap. However, their defense could still have some moving parts. For Chad Ruhwedel, that could mean several things by Thursday’s season opener against Arizona, not all of them ideal.
One thing remains constant and true for Ruhwedel: After years of being patient and persistent, he finally spent all of last season in the Penguins’ top six, and no one can take that away from him.
“At the end of the day, it’s a lot more fun, every night playing, being with the guys, going to war with them,” Ruhwedel said. “That’s probably the best way I’d describe it.”
At the end of last season, when players met with reporters before scattering for the summer, Ruhwedel was nearly emotional talking about his season as a regular, that pinnacle chapter of his professional legacy, after being a perennial No. 7, and even at times No. 8, on the Penguins’ depth chart.
After all, achieving that past age 30 isn’t bad for an undrafted guy from San Diego, decidedly not a hockey hotbed.
Ruhwedel played in 78 games in 2021-22. His most in a season before that was 44 in 2017-18. Last season also earned him a new contract that kicks in this season, worth $800,000 a year through 2023-24.
On top of that, Ruhwedel was a relatively new dad to a son last season after navigating the COVID-19 pandemic with his young family.
Ruhwedel, 32, doesn’t have the pedigree of P.O Joseph, who remains on the roster after a couple moves Sunday. He doesn’t have the feisty edge of Mark Friedman or the youth and upside of Ty Smith, both of whom landed in Wilkes-Barre/Scranton of the American Hockey League.
And he hasn’t been on one of the regular top three pairings throughout training camp.
Ruhwedel is one of those steady, reliable defensive defensemen whose game is probably best measured when he isn’t overly noticed on any given night. He has 11 goals, 40 points in 265 games in his career, which began in Buffalo and has continued in Pittsburgh the past six seasons.
Mostly as a reserve guy. Which is why it was so meaningful to be a regular last season.
The Penguins, however, made some moves during the offseason. Mike Matheson and John Marino are gone. Newcomer Jeff Petry seems entrenched on the second pairing. Smith and another newcomer, Jan Rutta, seemed to have the third pairing locked down before Smith was demoted Sunday – a move facilitated by the fact that Smith did not have to clear waivers.
Joseph is still on the roster.
What might happen between now and Thursday’s opener remains to be seen, but there is certainly a good chance Ruhwedel will revert to being the Penguins’ No. 7 or even No. 8 defenseman.
At least the teams knows he will be the consummate extra. Before he got his shot in the top six, Ruhwedel drew heaps of praise over the years from Penguins staff and teammates for being highly professional about his situation, as well as adept at suiting up for games at a moment’s notice and not showing any rust or hesitation.
How did he do that?
“Just staying ready and aspiring to get back in the top six,” Ruhwedel said. “It’s a daily endeavor, and it can be hard at times, but it’s definitely something to strive for. The motivation’s there. It’s clear.
“I just go about my business, do what I have to do in practice. I’ve found over the years that stuff tends to play out. You just control what you can. That’s the mentality I’ve had.”
Not that it’s easy to be a team’s seventh defenseman. Being in the top six has great benefits.
“Just the rhythm you get, confidence playing every night – everything just kind of feeds off each other,” Ruhwedel said. “It’s definitely something I look back on and try to get back to.”
If Ruhwedel has to take a step back, he still could have an opportunity to play. No team makes it through a season using just six defensemen, and that’s certainly been true of the Penguins. Things happen.
“It’s a long season. Lot of injuries all over the place,” Ruhwedel said. “I think most teams have learned that. We always end up using six, seven, eight, nine, however many defensemen throughout the season.”
Like everyone else, Ruhwedel will be watching to see what other moves the Penguins might make that could affect his place among the defensemen. The team’s Monday practice is in the evening, so where he lines up then following Sunday’s moves could offer some clues.
Regardless, Ruhwedel would not want to be anywhere else.
“Great group of guys. Fortunate to be part of this organization,” he said.