Rutherford sees 'three or four' spots to patch up with free agents

The NHL's free-agent signing period starts Tuesday, and the Penguins plan to be involved.

Just not the way they have been in some previous summers.

Although general manager Jim Rutherford said "we probably have a handful of guys that we have real strong interest in," the Penguins are all but guaranteed to lose more big-money players -- defenseman Matt Niskanen comes to mind -- than they add.

Rutherford said he hopes to use free agents to plug "three or four" holes in the lineup, with most of those being on the bottom two lines.

"I would say a top-nine forward and a couple of support guys in the top 12," Rutherford said.

Although Rutherford hasn't publicly identified players he plans to pursue, winger Nikolai Kulemin might become the Penguins' most prominent target. He is a longtime friend of Penguins center Evgeni Malkin and had a productive on-ice partnership with him in Russia.

When the Penguins opened a gaping void on Malkin's right side Friday night by trading James Neal to Nashville, going after Kulemin -- already likely to hear from them because they expect to lose Malkin's other winger, Jussi Jokinen, in free agency -- probably moved up on Rutherford's to-do list.

Kulemin, 27, is coming off his least productive season in the NHL, as he put up nine goals and 11 assists in 70 games with Toronto.

He scored a career-high 30 goals in 2010-11, but rarely has produced to his perceived potential in North America. If the Penguins sign Kulemin, it will suggest they believe that a playmaker of Malkin's caliber will be able to maximize his offensive output.

Goals and assists aside, the most important number for the Penguins when determining whether to go after Kulemin might well be what the salary-cap hit on his next contract would be. Kulemin's most recent deal covered two seasons and carried an annual cap hit of $2.8 million.

The Penguins have 14 players under contract for 2014-15, with a combined cap hit of just under $54.4 million.

While many projections had placed the cap ceiling for next season at around $71 million, the actual figure announced a few days ago was $69 million.

That will make it more difficult for the Penguins to flesh out their roster, although Rutherford said the impact of the cap being $69 million should not be overstated.

"It gives us more flexibility if [the ceiling is] more," he said. "But that being said, we're still OK where we're at. It's not like we have to move somebody out to do some of the things we want to do.

"Of course, if it was higher, it would have given us a better chance on Niskanen. But even if it's higher, for what he's looking for, he's still going to go into free agency."

Niskanen, Jokinen and defenseman Brooks Orpik top a group of 11 unrestricted free agents Rutherford does not expect to re-sign. He has left open the possibility of bringing back one or more in the future, but that would involve the Penguins having an unfilled need that a free agent who didn't find work elsewhere could address.

Although Kulemin presumably would be penciled in alongside Malkin on the second line if the Penguins sign him, the other forwards they'll pursue figure to end up on the third or fourth line.

At the moment, fourth-line right winger Craig Adams is the only bottom-six forward under contract for next season. The Penguins plan to retain third-line center Brandon Sutter and newly acquired forward Nick Spaling, both restricted free agents.

It also is not clear where winger Beau Bennett will fit in if the Penguins put newly acquired Patric Hornqvist and Kulemin on Malkin's wings. Bennett's skill is his greatest asset, and Rutherford seems to envision his bottom two lines playing more of a grinding game.

"Ideally, you have a third line that can check but also can get some key goals at different times, [have its members] kill penalties," he said. "But certainly is capable of playing against all other teams' third lines.

"Same on the fourth line. Good energy guys. If we can get a physical guy, that would be a bonus. I don't know. They're kind of hard to find."

How much cap space the Penguins have available could determine whether they try to acquire such a player via free agency or a trade.

What Rutherford decides to do with his defense corps could influence that, too. The expected departures of Niskanen, Orpik and Deryk Engelland will open spots on the Penguins' blue line, and Rutherford must determine whether to fill them with prospects such as Simon Despres, Brian Dumoulin and Scott Harrington.

"We've got to decide what we're going to do on defense," he said. "If we're just going to go with all the young guys and see how that goes early, or decide if we're going to add a veteran guy."

Dave Molinari: and Twitter @MolinariPG.

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