It hasn’t been a normal NHL offseason by any means. With the shortened regular season due to the coronavirus pandemic, the league was forced to push back virtually every offseason event including the playoffs, draft and free agency. But, one thing has remained fairly normal, the number, or lack of, moves made by general manager Jim Rutherford and the Pittsburgh Penguins.
It seems like forever since the Penguins made the blockbuster trade to acquire Phil Kessel. Was that the organization’s last big-time acquisition made during the offseason? If you’re not counting the deal that sent Kessel to the Arizona Coyotes last offseason, then the answer is yes.
They did make a deal in 2017 and sent Oskar Sundqvist to the St. Louis Blues in return for Ryan Reaves. However, considering the short cup of coffee Reaves had with Pittsburgh, that trade seems irrelevant.
Rutherford hasn’t exactly been dormant this offseason. However, they have far more notable subtractions than additions, and the additions have been fairly mundane.
The Pens dumped nearly $5.5 million in salary when they traded Nick Bjugstad to the Minnesota Wild for a 2021 seventh-round pick. Rutherford and company then offloaded a fan-favorite in Patric Hornqvist to the Florida Panthers for center Colton Sceviour and defenseman Michael Matheson, a pair of fringe players. Of the two, Matheson seems to bring the most potential as a depth defenseman.
Arguably, the two most notable offseason moves to date were losing defenseman Jack Johnson and goaltender Matt Murray. Johnson was released, to the relief of many Penguins fans and Murray was shipped off to the Ottawa Senators for a minimal return that included winger Jonathan Gruden and a 2020 second-round pick – the Penguins drafted a goalie, Joel Blomqvist, with that selection.
The lone ‘addition,’ if you will, was in late August when Rutherford acquired a former Pittsburgh draft pick, Kasperi Kapanen, from the Toronto Maple Leafs for Evan Rodrigues, 2018 second-round pick Filip Hallander, David Warsofsky and 2020 first-round pick, which ended up being 15th overall. The Penguins also received forward Pontus Aberg and defenseman Jesper Lindgren in the deal.
On the surface, the trade seemed to tilt in Toronto’s favor, but that isn’t the whole story. Rodrigues eventually re-signed with the Penguins, Warsofsky barely sniffed the top-six on defense and the Maple Leafs still have two question marks in Hallander, who could be a fairly decent NHL player, and Rodion Amirov, who they selected with the aforementioned pick. If the Penguins came out winners on that deal, is that the best Rutherford has done this offseason?
Rutherford made a few splashes in the free-agent market. He signed Rodrigues before signing depth forward Mark Jankowski. He also signed Frederick Gaudreau, a 27-year-old fringe forward, and most recently added defenseman Cody Ceci.
Ceci is perhaps the best addition, considering the Penguins need help on the right side on defense. However, the roster needs offensive defensemen and Ceci just does not bring that to the table. His career-high goal total is 10 scored in 2015-16.
The Penguins also signed former Edmonton Oilers forward Josh Currie to a two-way contract. The 27-year-old collected 41 points in 56 games with Edmonton’s AHL affiliate, Bakersfield Condors.
Now that Rutherford and the Penguins have waited around a while, the free-agent market has become a little thin. But, there are still options that they should consider in order to make the team a contender.
Erik Haula, a left-winger, could be a great fit. He scored 12 goals and 12 assists for the Carolina Hurricanes and Florida Panthers last season. Most notably, the 29-year-old was very effective in his two seasons with the Vegas Golden Knights, notching a career-year with 55 points (29 goals, 26 assists) in 76 games in 2017-18 while playing a very Pittsburgh-like two-way style.
Mike Hoffman could also be a good addition. He finished last season with 59 points in 69 games but considering his lack of defensive play and that he can be a distraction in the lockerroom, he seems less likely to be signed by the Penguins than most other options.
If Rutherford isn’t completely sold on Mark Jankowksi, who is set to center either the third or fourth line, Carl Soderberg, Mikael Granlund and Andreas Athanasiou are still on the market. The most appealing of the three is probably Athanasiou.
The 26-year-old showed promise in his time with the Detroit Red Wings, scoring 30 goals in 76 games in 2018-19. The only statistical category that finds Athanasiou lacking is in his plus/minus with a career minus-76, but there aren’t many Red Wings with a good plus/minus rating during their horrid rebuild.
Defenseman Travis Hamonic could be a strong addition to the defensive corps if Rutherford still wants to add to the right side. However, Hamonic and his agent have been in talks with the Vancouver Canucks, and his $3.857 million cap hit from last season seems to be a bit out of Pittsburgh’s price range.
The fact that Rutherford and the Penguins waited so long to nab a solid defenseman hurts. It is the one area where they have really struggled and, as it stands, the defensive corps is lopsided with too many left-handed players, and losing Justin Schultz does not help the cause.
The Penguins might be able to get away with starting the season with the roster they have, but without a key acquisition of some sort on the back end either before or during the trade deadline, the chances of being a Stanley Cup contender look slim.