This was not, Jim Rutherford readily admitted, the plan.
Not until Sunday, anyway.
Not until Buffalo bought out the final seven seasons of Christian Ehrhoff’s 10-year, $40 million contract, freeing him to seek employment wherever he wanted.
Penguins GM discusses player acquisitions
Penguins GM Jim Rutherford talks about the Penguins' newest additions in players Christian Ehrhoff, Blake Comeau and Thomas Greiss. (Video by Bill Wade; 7/1/2014)
Rutherford, the Penguins’ general manager, concluded immediately that Ehrhoff would be a nice addition to his defense corps, especially with Matt Niskanen and Brooks Orpik poised to leave via free agency.
Never mind that, until then, he would have been content to go with players already on the depth chart.
“When we looked at the defensemen who were out there [before Ehrhoff became available], we looked at our own young defensemen and felt they could either do the same thing now, or by the midpoint of the season that they could do the same thing,” Rutherford said.
“But, when you have a defenseman like Ehrhoff out there, that’s totally different.”
Ehrhoff didn’t need long to conclude that the Penguins were a pretty good fit for him, too, because he accepted a one-year deal worth $4 million not long after the NHL’s free-agency signing period opened Tuesday.
“I’m not sure there are many teams he’d take a one-year deal with,” Rutherford said. “He loved the opportunity to come to the Penguins.
“He just felt, ‘Let’s give one year a try with a good team, have a chance to win, and then we’ll look at [future commitments] at the end of the season.’”
Ehrhoff, who had six goals and 27 assists in 79 games with the Sabres in 2013-14, skates and moves the puck well, and should fit in nicely with the puck-possession game new coach Mike Johnston wants the Penguins to play. He also can play either side and quarterback the power play.
Ehrhoff was the Penguins’ most significant acquisition of the day, but not their only one.
They re-signed checking-line center Marcel Goc to a one-year deal worth $1.2 million, $500,000 less than he made last season; signed right winger Blake Comeau, formerly of Columbus, to a one-year contract worth $700,000; and goalie Thomas Greiss to a one-year, $1 million agreement.
Goc is the only one of the Penguins’ 11 unrestricted free agents to remain with the team.
Two minor leaguers, forward Nick Drazenovic and defenseman Taylor Chorney — son of former Penguins defenseman Marc Chorney — accepted two-way contracts worth $550,000 if they are in the NHL.
Although the Penguins had been expected to go after Comeau to fill a bottom-six role, the signing of Greiss was a surprise, since goalies Marc-Andre Fleury and Jeff Zatkoff already owned one-way contracts.
Rutherford, though, said he has liked Greiss, 28, “for a long time” and that he will compete with Zatkoff to be the No. 2 goalie behind Fleury, with the loser ticketed for the minor league team in Wilkes-Barre.
Zatkoff and Greiss would have to clear waivers to join the Baby Penguins.
When the day began, the Penguins had been expected to target a winger to play alongside Evgeni Malkin on the No. 2 line, with former Toronto forward Nikolai Kulemin the betting favorite.
Kulemin was still on the market Tuesday night, though, and there was no indication the Penguins were trying to sign him.
“I guess there’s always a chance, but it would take someone getting very, very creative to figure out how that contract fits into our [salary] cap,” Rutherford said.
Passing on Kulemin leaves the Penguins with six forwards — centers Sidney Crosby and Malkin and wingers Chris Kunitz, Pascal Dupuis, Patric Hornqvist and Beau Bennett — who are logical candidates to play on the top two lines next season
It’s worth noting that Dupuis will be returning from reconstructive knee surgery and Bennett is recovering from a wrist operation.
Regardless, Rutherford said he doesn’t think it’s imperative to add someone to the top two lines just yet.
“I’m not sure we have to get a top-six forward at this time,” he said. “We don’t necessarily have to have our team all set for a playoff run in September.
“If something comes along and we can figure it out, cap-wise, we’ll take a look at it, but I’m not going to get anxious about it at this point.”
The Penguins have 17 players, including the three goalies, under contract for 2014-15, with about $8.3 million in cap space left to flesh out their major league roster. That figure will rise a bit when the loser of the battle to back up Fleury is assigned to Wilkes-Barre.
Busy as the Penguins were on the first day of free agency, they’re not necessarily finished.
“We’re not in the same position now as we were at noon [Tuesday], where we were more aggressive about making something happen,” Rutherford said. “But with everything that’s going on, we’re going to stay in there.”
First Published July 1, 2014 12:18 PM