Penguins deeper, better team with off-season additions
Pittsburgh GM revamps forward group
Forget about the March of the Penguins. This is the July of the Penguins.
Pittsburgh general manager Jim Rutherford has completely revamped his forward group this month, adding more star power on the wing in Phil Kessel and plenty of depth with centre Nick Bonino and forward Eric Fehr. While the Penguins looked on shaky ground with difficult salary-cap situation after a first-round exit, they could now be primed for another few long playoff runs.
That’s a strong possibility because the Penguins still have Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin in their primes and because Rutherford has gone about addressing past problems.
Now there are enough established veterans and young players with potential to overcome cap issues and injuries if they arise this season.
“Based on what we went through last year with a number of injuries and everything, I like our depth at forward now,” Rutherford said on a conference call Tuesday. “We do know that injuries are going to play a part here, and some of these (young players) are going to get their opportunity.”
Last season Pittsburgh dressed 24 different forwards because of injuries and trades. Many were far from productive, leaving Crosby and Malkin to shoulder the bulk of the offensive load.
On opening night the Penguins could feature a top nine of Crosby, Malkin, Kessel, Bonino, Chris Kunitz, Pascal Dupuis, David Perron, Patric Hornqvist and Beau Bennett, with Fehr stepping in once he’s back from elbow surgery. And those spots aren’t set in stone, as Rutherford expects a competitive training camp and season under coach Mike Johnston.
“It’s not like guys are automatically put in a top-six or in the top-nine,” Rutherford said. “We have enough good players now that guys are really going to have to compete for those spots and compete for them all year. If a guy falls off, there’s a guy waiting to jump right in there.”
Put 2012 pick Oskar Sundqvist and free-agent addition Sergei Plotnikov in that category along with second-year players like Bryan Rust, Scott Wilson and Bobby Farnham. Rust, Wilson and Farnham don’t have flashy skill, but Rutherford believes the Penguins’ bottom six is better than it has been.
Part of that has to do with trading Brandon Sutter to the Vancouver Canucks for Bonino, a move that saved enough cap space for the Penguins to sign Fehr to a US$6-million, three-year deal.
“When you look at the structure of our salaries and our cap, it’s important to get those bottom-six cap hits in better shape,” said Rutherford, who took on $6.8 million a season for the next seven years by acquiring Kessel. “We strengthened that position.”
Rutherford even left the door open to adding another forward — maybe Matt Cooke. That was the rumour swirling at a recent Pirates-Minnesota Twins baseball game, with Cooke reportedly telling people he was returning to Pittsburgh.
Future moves aside, the Penguins should not only be deeper in scoring and able to handle injuries but faster. Johnston wants to play puck-possession hockey and do it with some speed.
“We made a huge impact when we added Phil Kessel. He’s a very powerful skater with a lot of speed,” Rutherford said. “Speed can come from natural speed like Kessel and Crosby have, or speed can come from the style of game the team plays. And I believe with the system that Mike uses, we’re going to have an aggressive, fast team.”