Ron Cook: Penguins general manager deals with salary-cap mess



Penguins general manager Jim Rutherford said the team had “a really good day” Tuesday, the first day of the NHL’s chaotic free-agency period. It did to a degree, thanks to Rutherford’s shrewd move to bring in front-end defenseman Christian Ehrhoff. But that doesn’t mean the Penguins are a better team than when Rutherford replaced Ray Shero, who was fired May 16. They are not. It is not even close.

Not much of that is Rutherford’s fault. Blame him, if you like, for not getting more than wingers Patric Hornqvist and Nick Spaling in the James Neal trade with Nashville last week — that’s a debatable point — but give him credit for what he did Tuesday, making at least something out of the salary-cap hell created by Shero, who allowed the roster to become top-heavy and old. There was no way Rutherford could match the four-year, $16 million contract that Jussi Jokinen received from the Florida Panthers. Certainly, there was no way he could match the insane deals that Matt Niskanen (seven years, $40.25 million) and Brooks Orpik (five years, $27.5 million) took from the Washington Capitals and the even more absurd contract that Deryk Engelland (three years, $8.7 million) signed with the Calgary Flames. Good for good guys Niskanen, Orpik and Engelland, good luck to the Capitals and Flames getting their money’s worth.

But the Penguins did get Ehrhoff, late of the Buffalo Sabres, at the bargain price of $4 million for one year. “I’m not sure there are many teams he would take a one-year deal with,” Rutherford said. “He loved the opportunity to come with the Penguins.”

Ehrhoff is a top-four defenseman, who, as Rutherford said, plays 23-24 minutes a game in every situation, can play on the right or left side, is a good team guy and is a perfect fit for the up-tempo style that new coach Mike Johnston wants to play. “He can really skate,” Rutherford said of Ehrhoff.

Getting a quality veteran defenseman was huge for the Penguins because of the losses of Orpik and Niskanen. The team’s top seven defensemen heading into training camp should be Ehrhoff, Kris Letang, Paul Martin, Rob Scuderi, Olli Maatta, Robert Bortuzzo and Simon Despres. That’s a pretty good group. It gives the team a chance to bring along its quality young defensemen at its pace instead of having to play one or two right away. Maata, as well as he played as a rookie last season, was overwhelmed in the playoffs. It’s hard to count on a young guy at that position.

Rutherford’s other major signing Thursday — former Arizona goaltender Thomas Greiss for one year, $1 million — didn’t make quite as much sense. Greiss is better than Jeff Zatkoff and gives the Penguins quality insurance behind No. 1 goalie Marc-Andre Fleury. But wouldn’t the team have been better served putting that $1 million toward a forward? It added former Columbus winger Blake Comeau Thursday for one year at $700,000 but he’s a third- or fourth-line player.

A troublesome question remains:

Who is going to skate with Evgeni Malkin after the Neal trade and the Jokinen defection?

We’re talking about a star without linemates.

Rutherford had said finding a winger for Malkin was a priority heading into free agency, but he failed to deliver one. It had been widely speculated that the Penguins would take a run at former Toronto forward Nikolai Kulemin — a friend of Malkin’s and a fellow Russian — but Rutherford said no deal with Kulemin is going to happen because of cap concerns. That’s probably just as well; Kulemin has been an underachiever in the NHL and had just nine goals in 70 games last season.

It’s possible Hornqvist, the key player in the Neal trade, could end up on Malkin’s line instead of skating with Sidney Crosby and Chris Kunitz. Rutherford also mentioned Pascal Dupuis, Beau Bennett and Spaling as potential top-six forwards. Dupuis will be coming back from a major knee injury. Bennett missed most of last season with a wrist injury. Spaling is better suited for the third line.

“I’m not sure we have to get a top-six forward at this time,” Rutherford said. “I’m not going to get anxious about it at this point.”

Rutherford was right when he said a team doesn’t have to be playoff-ready in July or even in October. It’s possible he could be super aggressive before the trade deadline next spring and move Fleury, Martin or Letang for a top winger, although that is unlikely. Rutherford said he wants to keep all three goaltenders. He said he and the organization “like Paul a lot and, hopefully, he can play here for several years.” Trading Letang will be difficult because of his eight-year, $58 million contract and his stroke last season.

Rutherford acknowledged Malkin probably has “some disappointment” with the Neal trade. It is never good to make one of your stars unhappy, especially not one who often has been temperamental during his career. But Malkin will get over it, Rutherford predicted.

“I do feel very strong that once the players get here and see some of the additions that we made that the players will be satisfied with that and feel that we strengthened the team.”

The guess here is the players will think just the opposite. Thank goodness for the Penguins’ sake it’s only July.


Ron Cook: rcook@post-gazette.com. Ron Cook can be heard on the “Cook and Poni” show weekdays from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. on 93.7 The Fan.

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