An underrated aspect of any NHL general manager’s job is knowing when to admit something isn’t working. This can come in the form of moving on from a prospect who stalled with the team, flipping a former big trade target who just isn’t clicking with his new linemates, or even moving on from a successful coach who hasn’t been able to get over the hump.
Heading into the 2019 NHL Trade Deadline, new Tampa Bay Lightning general manager Julien BriseBois found himself at a crossroads with Slater Koekkoek. While he was the 10th-overall pick at the 2012 NHL Draft, the former top prospect was never able to secure his role in the Lightning’s line-up. The talent was there, of course, but a mixture of injuries and blockbuster trades made by then-general manager Steve Yzerman made him redundant for Tampa Bay.
This left BriseBois with a choice. He could either lose Koekkoek for nothing on the waiver wire or in free agency, or he could try to turn him into something of value. Ultimately, this led the Lightning to trade Koekkoek and a 2019 fifth-round pick to the Chicago Blackhawks for right-shot defenseman Jan Rutta and a 2019 seventh-rounder.
At the moment, this was a small trade that didn’t appear to have a long-term impact on the Lightning. Essentially, BriseBois was acquiring an experienced 28-year-old defenseman to give himself more options, as Rutta was already eligible to play in the American Hockey League (AHL) without first having to clear waivers. This meant Tampa Bay had a low-cost asset that could be stashed in the AHL or called into action immediately if needed.
However, Rutta has proven to be far more than just a minor asset for the Lightning, as he has contributed important minutes to the franchise over the last three postseason runs.
Rutta Has Been a Perfect Option for the Lightning
When discussing a player like Rutta, it’s important to understand what he is, and what he isn’t. He isn’t an offensive juggernaut or a defensive stalwart. There will never be a time when he will be in the running for end-of-the-season accolades, and he won’t receive much fanfare for his play.
What he does bring to the ice, however, is a consistent, mature game. Rutta is the perfect right-side depth option for a team like the Lightning because he can play 76 regular-season games as he did in the 2021-22 regular season, sit on the bench for a week as a scratch to give the team a new look in the playoffs, then be called into 15 minutes of ice-time a night without missing a beat. For a team like Tampa Bay, that kind of versatility at his $1.3 cap hit is invaluable.
Even if his playing time has been somewhat limited due to injuries and the Lightning’s depth, Rutta was relied upon heavily during the 2021 postseason, where he played in all 23 games, posting three points in roughly 14 minutes of ice time each night. Were these statistics anything special? No. But they were good enough to not be a liability on the ice, and he even had a game-winning goal.
In both 2020 and now in 2022, Rutta has taken a smaller role on the Lightning’s blue line during the postseason. With Zach Bogosian in the lineup, he is the more traditional Stanley Cup playoff performer, as he is big, tough, and brings some snarl to his game. However, his role on this run could increase as Tampa Bay moves deeper into the 2022 postseason.
Lightning Turned a Stalled Prospect Into a Win
Looking back at this trade years later, it really starts to hit home how important it was. By acquiring Rutta, BriseBois took a stalled asset and turned it into a player who could make a difference to the franchise during their Cup window. Sure, you would prefer to have a dominant young defenseman who can take on 20 minutes every night, but the reality is not every player can be that.
The way you succeed in the Stanley Cup Playoffs isn’t based on just pure talent alone. You need those players who can step up for a series or even just a few games, make quality starts, then move back to the sidelines to allow bigger names their place on the roster.
Related: 2022 NHL Draft Guide
Rutta has been this player for the Lightning. He’s not perfect, but he has been a key to their success. Given the situation he was dealing with, this was a best-case scenario for BriseBois when he swung that minor defenseman trade back in 2019.
Eugene Helfrick is a Tampa Bay Lightning writer who is actually from Tampa Bay. He has written about the Lightning for six years, covering everything from their run to the 2015 Stanley Cup Final, to their crushing first-round exit in 2019, to their redemption in the bubble in 2020. While he is happy to talk about just about anything from cows to cars to video games, hockey will always remain one of his favorite pastimes.