Pen­guins deeper, bet­ter team with off-sea­son ad­di­tions

Pittsburgh GM re­vamps for­ward group

Cape Breton Post - - SPORTS - BY STEPHEN WHYNO

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.”


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