The Pittsburgh Penguins made their first big move of free agency by signing former Tampa Bay defenseman Jan Rutta to a three-year contract.
The obvious question is, does adding Rutta make another of the Penguins’ defensemen more likely to be traded to open some salary-cap space?
If Ron Hextall is looking to deal a defenseman, Vancouver would seem to be a potential trading partner. Not only are the Canucks looking to bolster their blue line, but GM Patrik Allvin and president of hockey operations Jim Rutherford are quite familiar with the personnel here from their time in the organization.
Vancouver has been entertaining offers for center-left winger J.T. Miller and, while re-signing Evgeni Malkin might have dampened the Penguins’ interest in Miller as a second-line center, he still could be intriguing as a left winger on Malkin’s line if Hextall would decide to part with Jason Zucker.
Rutta’s contract has a cap hit of $2.75 million, putting the Penguins’ perilously close to the NHL’s ceiling of $82.5 million.
Rutta will be 32 on July 29. He had three goals and 15 assists in 76 games with the Lightning in 2021-22.
He is 6-foot-3, 204 pounds and won Stanley Cups with the Lightning in 2020 and 2021. He put up one goal and four assists in 17 games during Tampa Bay’s run to the Cup final this year after recording three goals and 15 assists in 76 games during the regular season.
He set career-highs in hits (93), blocked shots (71), assists (15) and plus-minus (plus-25) in 2021-22.
Rutta projects as more of a depth defenseman than a difference-maker, and has been criticized for not taking full advantage of his size and for being guilty of occasional lapses in the defensive zone.
Barring a trade, Rutta would seem to project as a third-pairing defenseman, behind Kris Letang and John Marino and in competition with Chad Ruhwedel for a spot on the No. 3 pair.
That could change if GM Ron Hextall would decide to trade Marino, who has been mentioned frequently in trade speculation since the end of the season, although no one in the organization has publicly suggested that the team is interested in moving him.
This is what the Penguins’ defensive depth chart looks like now:
LEFT — Brian Dumoulin, Mike Matheson, Marcus Pettersson, P.O Joseph.
RIGHT — Letang, Marino, Rutta, Ruhwedel, Mark Friedman.
That’s about how many NHL-caliber defensemen teams like to have in their organization, but maintaining a stable that large might not be practical for the Pittsburgh Penguins, considering that restricted free agent Kasperi Kapanen still needs a contract and that the Penguins appear to still be in the market for a bottom-six forward or two.