If you go back to the offseason the one move from the Pittsburgh Penguins that had me scratching my head the most was the decision to sign Jan Rutta to a three-year contract worth a total of $8.25 million.
It was not so much that I thought Rutta was a bad player — he is mostly fine — but that it seemed like that money could have been better spent elsewhere. After all, Rutta would ideally only be a third-pairing defender and I am not sure if you need to make that sort of investment in a third-pairing defender, especially when there were some other weaknesses that could have been addressed. Add in the contract extension for Kasperi Kapanen and it seemed like there was a pretty significant amount of salary cap space tied up in players that were probably luxuries more than anything else.
But I am a mostly reasonable man and can admit when I miss the mark. So far, I have absolutely nothing bad or negative to say about Rutta’s play on the back end. In fact, I think he has been one of the biggest early season surprises for the Penguins.
He helped jumpstart Saturday’s come-from-behind win in Columbus by scoring a goal on a booming slap shot, already giving him two goals and three total points on the season in five games. That is not what the Penguins were paying for or expecting, of course. Entering this season he only scored 12 goals in 239 career regular season games, with only five of them coming over the previous four seasons. It is just not a significant part of his game.
The offense is a nice bonus, but overall he has just been a rock-solid option on the third-pairing with rookie Pierre-Olivier Joseph.
The overall on-ice numbers during 5-on-5 play have been as good as you could possibly ask for from a third-pairing defender.
With Rutta on the ice during 5-on-5 play the Penguins are on the positive side of the spectrum when it comes to shot attempts, scoring chances, and expected goals, and already have an 7-0 edge on the scoreboard. His penalty kill metrics have not been quite as strong, but everybody could stand to be a little better there so far. But when it comes to his 5-on-5 play he has been a great steady hand for Joseph to play next to on the third pair.
Maybe it should not be a surprise.
For starters, Rutta had strong numbers in Tampa Bay and was a solid bottom-of-the lineup defender. You need people to fill those spots and not every player on the roster is going to be a superstar. There is a lot to be said for a steady presence that is not going to hurt you in that spot. You do not need everybody to be a game-changer. But you can not have total zeroes out there, either.
Also the Penguins have done a good job in recent years getting the most out of defenders that came in with low expectations by simply putting them in good positions to succeed where they are not asked to do too much and play within their strengths. It seems like a small thing — and even an obvious thing — but some teams struggle with that.
Even though they did not advance in the playoffs for the fourth year in a row the Penguins took a rational, calm, and measured approach to their offseason and did not feel the need to make many dramatic changes. They brought back the main core, and mostly the same forwards, and are going to trust the process so to speak. The one big change they did make was overhauling half of the defense. Mike Matheson, John Marino, and Mark Friedman were traded and/or let go, while Chad Ruhwedel was dropped down to an extra defenseman role.
In their place they added some size and toughness with Jeff Petry and Rutta, brought in some promising youth in Ty Smith, and allowed Joseph to get an extended look at the start of the season. Normally that first sentence in this paragraph would make me roll my eyes and get irrationally angry, but they did it in a smart way. They adde size and toughness, but they did it by adding players that could actually play and do meaningful things that help lead to winning. Petry has been outstanding on the second pairing next to Marcus Pettersson, while Rutta and Joseph have helped give them a very competent third pairing.
Not sure how that will all play out over the course of an 82-game regular season and Stanley Cup Playoffs, but you have to love the start. It as good as the Penguins could have hoped for so far with that signing and the changes to the defense overall.