After the, um let’s call it “generous” signing of lower line winger Brandon Tanev by the Penguins yesterday, Jim Rutherford admitted he created a bit more work for himself. The team only has about $2 million in cap space and still needs to sign a few free agents. So even Rutherford could acknowledge a move will be coming to make sure everything fits under the salary cap.
And with it, comes his last best chance to fix the Penguins before the start of the 2019-20 season.
The Athletic’s Rob Rossi had an interesting idea, making a three-way deal with Ottawa and Vegas (heh, not that it worked last time!) to ship out Nick Bjugstad, Erik Gudbranson and Zach Aston-Reese plus a third round pick, to get in return forward Nikita Gusev and goalie Mike Condon.
I disagree a bit with Rossi’s theory on the likelihood of putting Evgeni Malkin and Alex Galchenyuk with Gusev, that does not sound like a “Mike Sullivan approved” line. At all.
Plus it doesn’t really fit in with Rutherford’s stated goals of this off-season to get Gusev where he glowed over words and phrases about Tanev like “character” and “hard work” and “harder to play against”.
Still, the premise is a very good one. Several media outlets have speculated Bjugstad or Bryan Rust could be the ones to go this time around. (This obviously leads to wonder where signing Tanev and potentially trading Rust actually gets the team as far as making a similar-but-lesser like-for-like swap of players, but I digress).
Anyways, if Pittsburgh can pair one of their overpaid liabilities on defense (Gudbranson like Rossi said or more usefully to move Jack Johnson) and tie that to the forward that should have a bit of value (like Rust) that could at least clear salary space. And offer the old-fashioned addition by subtraction of dropping a bad player.
It’s not a stretch since we know Rutherford attempted to move Johnson to Minnesota before settling on trading the more trade-able Olli Maatta, but doing so helped adjust salary it didn’t accomplish what should be a major off-season goal: to improve the the defense. Rutherford has said recently he is pretty “content” with the defense, but like Jesse Marshall said so eloquently, “as far as the PR piece, you don’t take your used car to the dealership and tell the dealer it’s a piece of garbage before trying to trade it in.”
Therefore, instead of targeting a top-six winger like Rossi mentioned, I would flip it up a bit and instead suggest addressing the team’s biggest weakness in the first place - that old Achilles heel on defense. Trading Johnson would mean a depth chart down the left side of Brian Dumoulin, Marcus Pettersson, Juuso Riikola. That probably would make a manager and coach nervous with a lack of depth behind Dumoulin.
It’s a shame Ian Cole didn’t work for Sullivan (or, maybe after seeing Jack Johnson might Sully have changed a tune on what an effective defensive defenseman should be?). That’s because Cole plays for a team that has salary cap space, could use a player like Rust, and might be willing to be a target here.
Specific scenarios can be fleeting and prone to a bunch of unknowns and lack of information without perspective. What is known is that nine different teams have $12+ million in cap space right now, and it’s always a good place to start to follow the money. It might take getting creative but finding a spot to get the Pens’ cap right plus getting a left hand defenseman back to address their problems.
We’ve seen Rutherford be creative before in the aforementioned Derick Brassard trade, now as the NHL’s off-season is about the reach a denouement we’ll see if he can salvage his week of weakening the team’s skill and over-paying/over-commiting term to a depth player to at take a positive step and make the team more competitive. It’s a necessary step to take in order to re-sign Pettersson, but it’s also an opportunity and one they won’t have too much of.
Jim Rutherford is sure getting his request to make sure the 2019-20 Penguins will be much different in personnel from the 2018-19 bunch, but he shouldn’t forget along the way the desire to actually make them demonstratively better. Fixing the defense and adding better puck moving would accomplish a goal as well.