Jim Rutherford smiled broadly Monday afternoon when he was asked about trading a first-round pick. The Pittsburgh Penguins GM seemed to enjoy the question if he was ever close to again using the first-round selection for a bigger haul on the trade market.
As Penguins GM, Rutherford had traded every first pick, including during the 2017 NHL Draft when the Penguins traded down into the second round to acquire Ryan Reaves and select defenseman Zachary Lauzon.
“No. No, I didn’t. This is a year that we’re on the bubble to get in (to the playoffs) and so I didn’t want to risk that,” Rutherford said. “But also it’s a very good draft.”
Spun a different way, the Penguins GM was willing to hold onto his first-round pick at the expense of missing the playoffs. That’s a far cry from 2015 when the Penguins sent their first pick to Edmonton for David Perron. For kicks–Edmonton dealt that pick to the New York Islanders who selected Mathew Barzal.
The Penguins would have drafted 16th in 2015, and had their choice of Barzal, Thomas Chabot, Kyle Connor, Joel Ericksson Ek, but the Penguins were desperate to make the playoffs and win. The pressure was different in 2015; the Penguins were trying in vain to win a second Stanley Cup in the Sidney Crosby era.
“It was important this year to keep that pick,” Rutherford said.
If you’re not paying attention to the small details, it’s easy to miss the Penguins have started a stealth and swift rejuvenation effort. The Penguins are shifting philosophy from “win now” to retooling. They won’t miss out on another deep draft.
Perceptions can often be like a dump truck without brakes heading down a steep hill. There comes the point of no return in which trying to turn it around is futile. The perception the Pittsburgh Penguins are old and at the end had full merit in October. Not so much, now.
The Penguins average age (29) is misleading because Matt Cullen, 42, is their fourth line center. Otherwise, the Penguins gradual integration of youth into the lineup, despite a lack of prospects acquired via the draft is bearing fruit.
The Penguins top line wingers Jake Guentzel and Bryan Rust are 24-years-old and 26-years-old, respectively. Guentzel scored his 29th goal of the season last night. The Penguins second line currently features 24-year-old Zach Aston-Reese, who is doing a bang-up job. Literally and figuratively.
The Penguins third line also features a mish-mash of players under 27. Nick Bjugstad is 26-years-old. Jared McCann who is exploding into a trade deadline steal is only 22. Also, factor 24-year-olds Teddy Blueger and Dominik Simon.
McCann has five goals in 13-games wearing a Penguins sweater and appears to be getting better with every game. Tuesday night, the high-intensity player who is still over-the-moon to be in Pittsburgh with childhood hero Sidney Crosby, scored a pair of goals.
On the blue line, only Kris Letang and Jack Johnson are north of 30-years-old. Olli Maatta, Juuso Riikola, and Marcus Pettersson are 24 or younger. Newly acquired Erik Gudbranson, for however long he’s a Penguins defenseman, is only 27-years old.
Even the Penguins goalie, Matt Murray is only 24-years-old.
The Penguins could further their youth movement this summer if they move Phil Kessel. Despite denials, too many sources indicated the Penguins had conversations about Kessel’s future elsewhere, last summer. Kessel, 31, will turn 32 on Oct. 2. His play has been spotty in the second half of the season, but he is still a point-per-game player.
And that would leave only Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin, Patric Hornqvist, Kris Letang, Jack Johnson and maybe Phil Kessel in the Penguins Dirty-30 club.
That’s not a bad core to build around, again.