Agitator Ruutu is latest addition

Ex-Canucks winger brings grit to lineup

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You know that good-hands winger the Penguins have been seeking to play with Sidney Crosby or Evgeni Malkin?

The one who's a potential 40- or 50-goal-scorer if he gets paired with a quality set-up man?

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The guy who could break open a game every time he steps onto the ice?

Well, Jarkko Ruutu, the newest Penguin, isn't it.

Ruutu, a free agent who yesterday accepted a two-year deal that will pay him $1.15 million annually, is coming off the most productive of his six NHL seasons, but his 10 goals and seven assists in 82 games with Vancouver didn't cause anyone to mistake him for, say, Jonathan Cheechoo or Jaromir Jagr.

But even though Ruutu, a 6-foot-2, 195-pound forward who can play either wing, is known primarily as an agitator and gritty, energy-line forward, he isn't exactly devoid of talent.

His blue-collar pedigree aside, former Vancouver coach Marc Crawford occasionally used him in shootouts. But with wingers such as Markus Naslund, Anson Carter, Daniel Sedin and the recently traded Todd Bertuzzi, the Canucks had no shortage of capable goal-scorers.

Consequently, Ruutu was limited to an average of 11 minutes, 42 seconds of ice time and had no real hope of playing his way out of a supporting role. And while the Penguins won't pencil him in as a top-six forward, they don't seem to believe that an increase in his point production is out of the question.

"He's a smart player," Penguins general manager Ray Shero said. "He understands the game. Maybe there is more [offensive] upside there."

Certainly, Ruutu hasn't been locked into fourth-line duty with the Penguins.

"I hope he can play a higher role," Shero said. "I don't want to pigeonhole players. I want to have an open mind when they come to [training] camp."

The Penguins clearly are counting on Ruutu to do more than simply annoy opponents -- never mind how good he is at it -- because they virtually doubled his pay; Ruutu got $600,000 from the Canucks in 2005-06.

Ruutu, who will be 31 Aug. 23, opted to sign with the Penguins despite strong interest from Chicago. The Blackhawks had hoped to unite him with his younger, more gifted, brother Tuomo.

The healthy pay hike aside, Shero believes it wasn't just money that drew Ruutu to the Penguins.

"He came here for the right reasons," Shero said. "He had other options. I don't think we were on his radar on Day 1 [of free agency Saturday]."

That apparently began to change when Ruutu, who is in his native Finland, and Shero had a telephone conversation.

"He just listened," Shero said. "I told him what we're trying to do here, and why I thought it would be a good fit for him.

"I know people from Finland who know him very well. He has leadership and character and can help us get this thing turned around and going in the right direction."

Despite being talented enough to play for Finland in various international competitions and earn a silver medal at the 2006 Olympics, Ruutu's signature trait is his knack for infuriating opponents. Going against him can be as pleasant as being double-shifted with a pebble in your skate and a splinter in your eye.

But like so many players who fill such a role, Ruutu crosses the line occasionally. Sometimes, that translates to hits opponents regard as dirty. On other occasions, it means taking an ill-considered penalty.

The latter trait tends to anger management -- Ruutu famously infuriated ex-Vancouver GM Brian Burke on more than one occasion with some of his penalties -- but Shero downplayed concerns about that. He acknowledged only that with a player like Ruutu, I'd "rather have him draw penalties than take them."

Shero said he decided he needed a player like Ruutu "when I interviewed for the job," and believes Ruutu's assets make him a valuable addition, regardless of precisely where he settles in on the depth chart.

"He's a wonderful team guy, and has good hockey sense," Shero said. "His role is going to be up to him. How he plays, how he fits in."

NOTES -- Andy Hilbert, who did not receive a qualifying offer from the Penguins, accepted a one-year contract with the New York Islanders. ... Don Meehan, agent for former Penguins winger Konstantin Koltsov, confirmed yesterday that, contrary to reports out of Russia late last week, Koltsov has not signed with Ak Bars Kazan of the Super League. Meehan said no NHL team has expressed interest in Koltsov or Tomas Surovy, another former Penguins winger he represents. ... Shero said he does not expect to compete for any of the big-name free agents -- guys such as Anson Carter, Sergei Samsonov, Danny Markov and Brendan Shanahan -- still on the market.


Dave Molinari can be reached at 412-263-1144.


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