NHL: New GM begins rebuilding Penguins
PITTSBURGH — Jim Rutherford didn’t expect to fill all the holes on the Pittsburgh Penguins’ roster in a day.
That’s a good thing, because it didn’t happen. Not even close.
Still, the new general manager isn’t panicking despite losing six players in free agency, including defensemen Brooks Orpik and Matt Niskanen, and talented winger Jussi Jokinen.
Less than a month into the job, Rutherford is taking a pragmatic approach to replenishing the talent around stars Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin. The process began Tuesday when the Penguins signed defenseman Christian Ehrhoff, forward Blake Comeau and goaltender Thomas Greiss to one-year deals. The team also retained forward Marcel Goc.
Those are hardly the kind of splashy signings made elsewhere — Washington spent $67.5 million alone to bring in Orpik and Niskanen — but Rutherford isn’t complaining.
“We don’t necessarily have to have our team all set for a playoff run in September,” he said.
Ehrhoff came onto the market over the weekend after the Buffalo Sabres bought out the final seven seasons his 10-year contract. The 31-year-old will make $4 million next season in Pittsburgh. The German-born Ehrhoff has 69 goals and 313 points in 692 games, and Rutherford believes Ehrhoff’s skill set will fit in well under new coach Mike Johnston.
“He plays a lot of minutes, 23-24 a game, can play right or left defense, power play, penalty kill,” Rutherford said. “He’s in great shape and a great team guy. He can really skate and with the kind of team we have, having a guy back there that can skate and move the puck is important.”
Rutherford is confident the young defensemen in Pittsburgh’s minor league system will give the Penguins a solid blue line even without Orpik — the longest-tenured defenseman in team history — and Niskanen, who cashed in after a career year.
Still, Rutherford didn’t waste a chance to grab Ehrhoff despite the shortness of the deal.
“He loved the opportunity to come with the Penguins,” Rutherford said. “He just felt that, let’s give it a one-year try with a good team and have a chance to win and then we’ll look at it at the end of the season.”
Comeau provides depth as a third or fourth line forward. The 28-year-old had five goals and 11 assists in 61 games for the Columbus Blue Jackets last season. Greiss, who went 10-8-5 with a 2.29 goals-against average for Phoenix in 2013-14, will compete with Jeff Zatkoff for the backup spot behind Marc-Andre Fleury.
The signings give the Penguins depth, but also leave plenty to address going forward, including who is going to play with Malkin after the departure of Jokinen and James Neal. The Penguins traded Neal to Nashville for Patric Hornqvist and Nick Spaling on Friday, and Jokinen left on Tuesday to sign a four-year deal with the Florida Panthers.
Hornqvist is a candidate to fill out a top six spot, and the return of Pascal Dupuis from a knee injury and Beau Bennett from a wrist injury should give the Penguins some options. Rutherford didn’t rule out a run at free agent forward Nikolai Kulemin — who happens to be a good friend of Malkin’s — but isn’t sure the money will work.
“There’s always a chance but it would take someone getting very, very creative to figure out how that contract fits into our cap,” Rutherford said.