After the acquisition of defenseman Mike Matheson and the re-signing of Juuso Riikola recently, the Pittsburgh Penguins have too many left handed defensemen when added to the group that includes Brian Dumoulin and Marcus Pettersson and Jack Johnson.
Penguins coach Mike Sullivan is very much in-line with the strategies of the day, which includes playing left handed shots on the left side and right handed defenseman on their strong side on the right side.
The Pens have a problem there, since only Kris Letang and John Marino are sure-fire RHD players right now. Pittsburgh also has the somewhat serviceable Chad Ruhwedel, who is better served in a depth role.
Pens’ general manager Jim Rutherford joined the Mark Madden show on 105.9 WXDX in Pittsburgh on Friday afternoon and had a lot to talk about regarding his crowded blue line.
When asked if Matheson was a bottom pair player or a potential top-four defender, Rutherford expressed a hopeful view
“He has the ability to play in the top four, but I think based on coming off the year he had in Florida and trying to adjust to Pittsburgh, the best place for him to start would be on the third pairing. And then as he gets adjusted and as he makes the adjustment that Mike Sullivan and Todd Reirden are going to want him to make, and he gets his confidence, he’s good enough to move into the top four.”
Rutherford also mentioned a trait we’ve laid out earlier, that Matheson occasionally tries too much to use his skating to make a play, which gets him in trouble. The work the Pens’ coaching staff will have to do is coach him up to move the puck quicker, use his hands more than his legs and let the puck do the work. This is the same exact aspect that former NHLer Patrick O’Sullivan touched on in a tweet on Friday.
Like I referenced yesterday this happens a lot. A case of over estimating his skating ability thinking it can get more accomplished than it actually does. Leads to unnecessary mistakes. https://t.co/txR9strKTH— Patrick O'Sullivan (@realPOSULLIVAN) September 25, 2020
When Madden asked about how Matheson would fit in the now crowded left side of the ice, Rutherford interestingly pushed Jack Johnson out of the third pair LD spot he finished the season in.
“I think it’s fair to say that our left side right now, if we were playing a game tonight, is going to be Dumoulin, Pettersson and Matheson. We’re going to have to move somebody out, or guys are going to have to play their off-side. We’re just working through that now, looking what the options are.”
At the risk of getting too excited, this should be music to Pens fans’ ears. Listen to enough Rutherford talk — and he likes to talk a lot to the media, which is awesome — and you can read between the lines that Johnson is the odd man out.
Rutherford made many similar statements about Nick Bjugstad in the recent weeks before his trade, about how the GM felt Bjugstad would be healthy and primed to have a big year, but non-committal about where that would take place.
Rutherford painting a picture of his left-side defense that doesn’t include Jack Johnson is a wonderful thing. We know the Pens have tried to trade Johnson several times in the last year or so, and a move ought to be impending, otherwise Rutherford is facing a roster with Ruhwedel or Johnson as his third pair right defenseman, which doesn’t align with organizational goal.
Madden then drilled down specifically about the status and possibility about potentially having to trade Dumoulin or Pettersson. It’s a great question, since conceivably the door would be open to trading one of them to solve the logjam and Rutherford had just uttered “we’re going to have to move somebody out”. Would that “somebody” be Dumoulin or Pettersson?
Rutherford dismissed that quickly and had little appetite for considering if he would listen to moving one of his top-end LHD’s.
“No,” Rutherford said and then would repeat. “No, I don’t have interest in listening to that. We trade a lot of draft picks to win now, we’ve been fortunate over the last couple of years in being able to get a couple of defensemen without having to draft them ourselves. We get Pettersson in a trade, whose a young guy. We get Marino in a trade, but was heading for free agency before we traded for him. And now we get Matherson. We’re starting to transition on the fly here and try to get a defense that’s well-balanced in age, but also enough core young guys who can be good defensemen here for the Penguins for a number of years,” Rutherford told Madden.
With Madden’s question solved about Dumoulin and Pettersson answered empathically, he then moved on to what the Matheson addition means about Jack Johnson moving forward.
“Well it means he either has to go and play the right side or he wouldn’t be in the lineup,” Rutherford said. “I think that Chad Ruhwedel has more to give. He’s a very consistent guy. He doesn’t play 82 games, he jumps in and out of the lineup. He looks like he hasn’t been out of the lineup, but he sits for two months and jumps right in and he does a good job for us. It’ll be very competitive to see who gets that sixth spot on defense.”
Which again, if you know what Rutherford says, this is a very telling answer of how he’s thinking. Or at least, how he is thinking right now. Rutherford is asked directly about Johnson and doesn’t commit to Johnson being in the lineup and then quickly pivots to talking about how much he likes Ruhwedel.
Pens’ fans are understandably cautious at best about the signals sent about Jack Johnson, since the manager signed him to a bad and long contract and the coach has dressed him 99% of the time since then.
But these quotes and the mindset is very telling. What speaks even louder is the action to bring in Matheson AND unequivocally dismiss any thought of trading Dumouin/Petterson.
At the risk of getting excited too soon, that all sounds like the days of Jack Johnson in Pittsburgh are drawing to an end.
Some other random takeaways from Rutherford:
- Called 2019 first round pick Samuel Poulin “physically ready” to play in the NHL right now, only citing his mental readiness and said he would be knocking on the door. Poulin, a LW, could possibly be penciled in right now for at least a cameo in the NHL to see if he can cut it.
- The Pens think Pierre-Olivier Joseph can play on the right side despite being a LH shot and is also close to making the NHL.
- They are very high on NCAA free agent signings Cam Lee (another LHD with RH side capabilities) and forward Drew O’Connor. If these guys perform as good as the team hopes, they possibly and even probably will get NHL opportunities sooner than might be imagined.
- Rutherford talked about being fairly in “control” of the team’s salary cap situation and doesn’t expect to have to “scramble to get under it”. And then he mentioned two restricted free agents in Matt Murray and Dominik Simon that “will be tough to fit into our cap, so we’re going to have to see where this goes in the next 10 days as to what the possibilities are”.
- Interestingly, but not surprisingly, Rutherford left restricted free agents Tristan Jarry and Sam Lafferty out of the above statement. Consider that an omission that didn’t happen by accident. If you’re planning your 2020-21 Pens’ roster, count out Murray and Simon, count in Jarry and Lafferty. The Simon inclusion is probably the most surprising one of them all here...
- Overall though, Rutherford feels the players on the roster is trending to an improvement by adding Matheson and Kasperi Kapanen this off-season.
- Rutherford is only looking for a free agent “that slips through the cracks” and won’t have the space to target a “big guy” that will sign immediately.
- Rutherford doesn’t know if the season will start December 1st as is the tentative opening date (narrator voice: it won’t). But GMJR doesn’t think the season will start too far behind 12/1, and cites the NHL’s experience, planning and success of the bubble playoff to put faith in the league to figure it out.
Even though many have differing opinions on Mark Madden, kudos to him for this interview, I encourage you to listen to it. Rutherford is a great subject because he’s always giving and open to share his thoughts, and Double M asked some great questions, because he is has a very sharp mind for hockey and the state of the Penguins. If anyone had worries about the Pens going crazy and trading a good defenseman to fit Johnson, thanks to Madden’s astute follow-ups we know that’s not the mindset. That’s great stuff.
The NHL’s free agent period opens in two weeks on Friday October 9th. As Rutherford tipped his hand, expect a trade of Matt Murray by that point. Also, don’t be surprised if Jack Johnson is off the roster by then as well.