Rutherford's holiday: Rest and reflection

PENGUINS



Jim Rutherford kicked off his fifth week as general manager of the Penguins Friday and did it in a fairly atypical way.

He didn't fire a coach. Or hire one. Didn't sign a free agent or pull off a major trade. Didn't draft the son of a guy whose rights he had secured a couple of decades earlier or overhaul the team's hockey-operations department.

Instead, Rutherford spent the holiday at his home in North Carolina, mostly relaxing while making time to conduct a little business.

"You're always working," he said.

Still, Rutherford had a chance to reflect a bit on all that has transpired since he succeeded Ray Shero as GM May 6, and he clearly is satisfied with what has been accomplished so far.

"I feel very good about what's happened," he said.

He seemed particularly pleased with the hiring of coach Mike Johnston, even though Johnston got the job only after Willie Desjardins (and perhaps Bill Peters) accepted offers elsewhere.

He's happy with the trade that brought forwards Patric Hornqvist and Nick Spaling from Nashville for James Neal because the Penguins "added two players who can play a little different style."

And Rutherford is flat-out delighted to have gotten top-four defenseman Christian Ehrhoff as a free agent after Buffalo bought out his contract.

"I feel we've improved ourselves at all positions," he said.

He acknowledged the impact of defensemen Matt Niskanen and Brooks Orpik leaving via free agency, but said: "Our younger defensemen are getting better, and the addition of Ehrhoff makes us stronger."

Rutherford cited "how we balance our forwards" as his greatest challenge for the rest of this offseason, and did not rule out additional personnel moves. With six restricted free agents, including center Brandon Sutter, defenseman Simon Despres and Spaling to re-sign, a trade or two might be unavoidable.

He also suggested that winger Kasperi Kapanen -- the Penguins' first-round draft choice eight days ago and son of Sami Kapanen, who Rutherford once drafted for Hartford -- could be in the mix as early as this fall.

"We have to keep in mind that Kapanen could come in and make this team," he said. "He's played with men [in Finland] for two years. He's a good player."

The Penguins roster very much remains a work-in-progress and might well still be until the trade deadline next season. Nonetheless, Rutherford feels they are "moving in the right direction," specifically toward their objective of re-establishing themselves as serious Stanley Cup contenders.

Associate general manager Jason Botterill is piecing together a roster, too, but his task is far less complicated than Rutherford's. Or, for that matter, than Botterill's has been in most recent summers.

He doubles as general manager of the Penguins' American Hockey League affiliate in Wilkes-Barre and usually has devoted a significant chunk of the offseason to recruiting and signing free-agent forwards who could be productive for the Baby Penguins.

Botterill has done a pretty good job of that, as evidenced by Wilkes-Barre/Scranton's presence in the Calder Cup playoffs every spring, but an influx of homegrown forward prospects such as Bryan Rust, Josh Archibald, Scott Wilson and Anton Zlobin has eliminated the need to bring in AHL veterans to fill the roster.

"We have, especially at the forward positions, a lot more prospects down there this year," Botterill said. "We don't have to go out and sign three or four Group 3 or Group 6 [unrestricted] free agents.

"To be honest, there isn't a lot of work to be done, moving forward here. We'll continue to evaluate the situation, but for the most part, we're all set there."

The Penguins have center Andrew Ebbett on the second year of his contract and have re-signed the likes of Zach Sill, Tom Kostopoulos and Nick Drazenovic. Although productive veterans such as Harry Zolnierczyk and Chuck Kobasew have moved on, Botterill seems upbeat about what the Baby Penguins have up front.

"We understand that we're going to be a fairly young group of forwards to start the year down there," he said. "But what gets us excited is where they can go in their growth, and where the team could be at the end of the year."

He also sees no need to bring in any defensemen other than recently signed free agent Taylor Chorney, listing Reid McNeill, Harrison Ruopp and Nick D'Agostino among those who will assume larger roles.

"Things could always change if adjustments are made at the NHL level, trades and stuff," he said. "But we're very comfortable with our group down there and think it's a fairly strong group."

*

NOTES -- Free-agent center Brian Gibbons, who played 41 games with the Penguins last season, accepted a one-year, two-way contract from Columbus. ... Travis Green told the Utica Observer-Dispatch in New York that he decided against joining the Penguins as an assistant coach because his career objective of being an NHL head coach is better served by remaining a head coach in the AHL.

Dave Molinari: Dmolinari@Post-Gazette.com and Twitter @MolinariPG.


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