The Pittsburgh Penguins and GM Jim Rutherford again got an early jump on the NHL trade deadline shopping. Rutherford is known for early dealings, and despite the advanced date and only two weeks to the deadline, the Penguins were again the first team to pull off a significant deal. Monday night, the Penguins acquired their long-sought prize, Jason Zucker from the Minnesota Wild.
The 28-year-old forward was almost a Penguin last June until Phil Kessel vetoed the trade. Zucker shuffled around the Minnesota lineup under head coach Bruce Boudreau, yet still has 29 points (14g, 15a). He is within striking distance of his fourth consecutive 20-goal season.
Tuesday, Zucker was a welcome sight on the top-line LW beside Sidney Crosby. He fired five shots on goal, even has he poo-pooed his on performance.
“I didn’t play very well (Tuesday). I thought my hands were terrible. I mishandled pretty much every puck I touched,” he groused after firing five shots on goal and getting a couple of Grade-A scoring chances.
The Penguins have struggled mightily to fill that top-line spot since Crosby returned on Jan. 14. Crosby’s preferred sidecar, Jake Guentzel, suffered a season-ending shoulder injury on Dec. 30, and in total, the Penguins have been inconsistent ever since.
So, is Rutheford done? No, he can’t be. Not now. He went all-in and still needs another card, maybe two to fortify his hand.
“I don’t think we’ve been as consistent as we were, and we’ve talked about that internally,” head coach Mike Sullivan said at his Tuesday morning news conference to discuss Zucker.
The Penguins still have holes in their lineup, and their GM just gave up a king’s ransom for Zucker, including the Penguins first-round pick and top blueline prospect, Calen Addison.
However, the third piece sent to Minnesota on Monday is perhaps the giveaway that Rutherford isn’t done. The Penguins also sent Alex Galchenyuk and his $4.9 million cap hit to Minnesota. That move opened up a significant amount of salary cap space for the Rutherford to keep dealing, but it also cost the Penguins a greater prospect.
For context, a source told PHN nearly two weeks ago the deal which sat on both Rutherford and Minnesota Wild GM Bill Guerin’s desk included the Penguins top pick. However, the prospect mentioned was not up to Addison’s level. Not even close (If you’re the sleuthing type, our trade bait list had one name no one else had, but we did accurately predict Minnesota would have the Penguins top-round choice).
So, if Rutherford doesn’t make additions to address the Penguins depth needs both on defense, or forward, then the premium price will have been for naught.
Rutherford won’t let it go to waste. He never does. The next Penguins trade(s) probably will not be earth-shattering or a blockbuster, but it could be similar to the slick moves in 2017 to acquire eighth and seventh defensemen Mark Streit and Ron Hainsey. Streit played 19 critical games for the Penguins, and Hainsey eventually became the Penguins top-pairing defenseman after Kris Letang had neck surgery.
The current Penguins depth defensemen are Juuso Riikola and Chad Ruhwedel. Riikola has been ineffective in his time this season, though his deployment has been inconsistent and born of desperation, more so than with a good chance to succeed. Ruhwedel is a perfect seventh defenseman, but recent high-profile games have exposed him, too.
Head coach Mike Sullivan has dramatically reduced his third pairing’s ice time, down to 10-12 minutes. Fully healthy, the Penguins don’t appear to have a spare left-handed defenseman whom they trust.
Tuesday night against Tampa Bay, the Penguins coaches sparingly used their third pairing and occasionally used Riikola and Ruhwedel on different pairings to avoid keeping them together.
In other words, another injury to the Penguins left-side would be bad. Very bad. However, a sure-footed defenseman capable of NHL ice generally costs a second or third-round pick. Sometimes, even depth defensemen cost multiple picks.
If the Penguins get healthy, their left side defenders are Brian Dumoulin, Jack Johnson, and Marcus Pettersson. But if this season has taught the Penguins anything, it is to avoid using the words “healthy” and “Penguins” in the same sentence. The Penguins need a left-handed defenseman capable of standard playing time, or the top pairs will soon be exhausted.
Rutherford could also bolster the fourth line and forward depth with another Penguins trade. When Nick Bjugstad and Dominik Kahun return to the lineup, the Penguins will still be juggling Dominik Simon on the top line. They will also be one injury away from needing Sam Lafferty, who hasn’t played more than a handful of minutes recently, to play a prominent role.
Regardless of which need he chooses to fill, Rutherford can’t be done. Not yet.