With 10 wins in their last 16 games and on the verge of clinching on a playoff spot for a league-best 12th straight season, the Pittsburgh Penguins are in a much better position than they were not so long ago.
Having survived injuries to key players, such as Kris Letang and Brian Dumoulin, and a lack of production from others who were expected to be key players, such as Derick Brassard and Tanner Pearson, the Penguins have emerged stronger and seemed primed for another run at the Stanley Cup.
While head coach Mike Sullivan and his staff deserve a great deal of the credit for the Penguins’ recent turnaround, the catalyst for this success has been the shrewd moves of Penguins general manager Jim Rutherford who, despite criticism from fans and analysts alike, has solidified the Penguins’ roster both now and for the forseeable future with his newest additions.
Rutherford Gets His Man and More
The first of these additions was a player that Rutherford had been pursuing for a while; Nick Bjugstad. Having unsuccessfully pursued a trade for Bjugstad in 2018, Rutherford was able to entice Florida Panthers general manager Dale Tallon with two players with expiring contracts in Brassard and Riley Sheahan and three draft picks in the upcoming entry draft.
While the Panthers received the salary cap space they will need to make a big splash in the free agency pool this summer, the Penguins finally got a true third-line center in Bjugstad, as well as an emerging talent in Jared McCann.
Freed to utilize his offensive talents in the Penguins’ up-tempo system, Bjugstad is averaging almost three shots per game and, playing alongside defensively-responsible teammates like Patric Hornqvist and Dominik Simon, he has proven to be the physical third-line center that the Penguins enjoyed when Jordan Staal teamed with Matt Cooke and Tyler Kennedy to form the league’s best third line a decade ago.
Not to be overlooked, McCann has also had an immediate impact since arriving and has proven to be a “plug and play” talent who can be effective on any line and in any role much like former Penguin Pascal Dupuis. Like McCann, Dupuis was seen by many as just an afterthought when he was acquired in the Marian Hossa trade in 2008, but his versatility and tenacity made him an invaluable part of the Penguins for nine seasons and McCann has shown the potential to have the same kind of impact.
With Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin, Phil Kessel and Kris Letang all on the wrong side of 30, McCann, just 22 years old, gives the Penguins the infusion of youth that helped them win back-to-back Stanley Cups in 2016 and 2017. In addition, McCann has another year remaining on his contract before he becomes a restricted free agent in 2020 and will likely be a big part of the Penguins’ future.
Gudbranson Silences the Critics
While the additions of Bjugstad and McCann were widely applauded by fans and analysts, Erik Gudbranson’s arrival in Pittsburgh received no such ovation. Having, by his own admission, struggled during his tenure with the Vancouver Canucks, Gudbranson was immediately called upon to fill the void left by injuries to Letang and Dumoulin, but many expected him to struggle in Pittsburgh just as he had in Vancouver.
Fortunately for the Penguins, he has been better than even Rutherford could have hoped. Through 17 games with the Penguins, Gudbranson is averaging almost 20 minutes of ice time per game, and with a Corsi rating of 52.6 percent, is second only to Letang among Penguins defensemen.
With the Penguins on the brink of another run at the Stanley Cup, it’s hard to overstate the positive impact that Bjugstad, McCann and Gudbranson have had since they arrived in Pittsburgh less than two months ago.
While time will tell whether this Penguins team has what it takes to hoist the Stanley Cup for the third time in four years, there is no doubt that Rutherford’s latest acquisitions have put a team that had been heading in the wrong direction back on track.
I am a retired Navy pilot now flying in the airline industry. I graduated from Miami University (Ohio) with a Bachelor’s Degree in Political Science and a Master’s Degree in International Relations from the Navy War College and Salve Regina University. I worked as a featured columnist for Bleacher Report for 3 years covering the Pittsburgh Pirates, Steelers and Penguins and now cover the Penguins for The Hockey Writers