The Penguins and their fans couldn’t ask for much more out of Jim Rutherford and the job he’s done as the General Manager of the team. The majority of his moves haven’t just been successful, but some of the hard-to-swallow trades have been vitally important to the Penguins winning back-to-back Stanley Cups (James Neal-for-Patric Hornqvist). One of the major reasons why the Penguins were able to repeat as champions in 2017 is because he was able to bring back almost an identical roster as the year before.
This offseason has given Rutherford a much-different challenge. Several players from the back-to-back teams have gone on to different things, whether voluntarily or not. Marc-Andre Fleury is the Vegas Golden Knights’ inaugural goaltender now via the Expansion Draft. Chris Kunitz, Matt Cullen, Nick Bonino, Trevor Daley, and Ron Hainsey have all left via free agency. This has left holes in the lineup, especially in the bottom-six.
The Penguins are set on the wings. Phil Kessel, Patric Hornqvist, Bryan Rust, Jake Guentzel, Scott Wilson, Conor Sheary, Carl Hagelin; shall I go on? Obviously, you could always add depth because you have to account for injuries (especially if you’re the Penguins), but even if (when) injuries occur, there are guys like Daniel Sprong or Zach Aston-Reese chomping at the bit to get NHL time.
One of the Penguins’ strengths for several years now has been their depth at center. Obviously, having Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin gives you the best duo at center in the league, and there has been the likes of Jordan Staal, Brandon Sutter, and Bonino behind them on the third-line. Cullen gave them a great two-way threat on the fourth-line that the Penguins lacked for a long time.
Now, there is a significant drop off with what the Penguins have internally at the moment. Carter Rowney is most likely to assume the fourth-line center role. Rutherford and Sullivan have both expressed faith in him. There are guys like Rust, Guentzel, or Aston-Reese who are natural centers who could possibly fill the role of a third-line center, but it’s still a bit murky with either of those guys filling that role. Guys like Staal, Sutter, and Bonino all have similar skill-sets. They kill penalties, are good at face-offs, yet still have a decent enough scoring touch to be legitimate secondary scoring options.
Rust is a decent penalty-killer, but you have to wonder if he could do well enough in the face-off circle and give enough scoring from the third line without guys like Crosby or Malkin next to him. It’s the same argument for Guentzel. Both guys, however, have significant tangibles that could give the third-line center role a bit of a makeover. Rust has underrated speed and tenacity on the forecheck, where if you pair him with guys like Hornqvist or Hagelin, that could make a line difficult to play against with the amount of speed and grit on a line like that. Guentzel would bring a certain level of skill to the role. He definitely plays well with Crosby, and you wonder if, because of their amazing chemistry, Mike Sullivan would actually pull the trigger on moving Guentzel to third-line center. Guentzel has the ability to score without the aid of a star like Sid, while a guy like Hornqvist could open up space for Guentzel to work.
While guys like Rust, Guentzel, or any other internal option aren’t ideal, they could do a good enough job for a couple month span until prices drop on some trade targets Rutherford has his eyes on.
It doesn’t seem likely that Aston-Reese fills that role right away. Rutherford likes to give these young draftees and signed college players time in the AHL before they are thrown into a full-time role in Pittsburgh.
The dreams of fans are to bring in a guy like Matt Duchene or the ex-Penguin Staal to fill the role. But salary-cap space and high trade prices could prevent that. And really, a trade for Duchene is a pipe dream. Rutherford is also smart enough to know that a Stanley Cup doesn’t hinge on the way the team looks in August or September.
Rutherford is fine with being a bit patient with going outside the organization to fill the need on the third-line. The season isn’t won in October and November. Obviously, if the Penguins struggle out of the gate and are desperately hurting for production from the bottom-six, Rutherford will pull the trigger. Trust the GM that’s given Pittsburgh back-to-back Cups.