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At start of free agency, Penguins general manager changes plan

NHLI via Getty Images - Sabres defenseman Christian Ehrhoff skates against the Tampa Bay Lightning on March 6, 2014, at the Tampa Bay Times Forum in Tampa, Fla. Ehrhoff signed a one-year contract with the Penguins on Tuesday, July 1, 2014.
<div style='float:right;width:100%;' align='right'><em>NHLI via Getty Images</em></div>Sabres defenseman Christian Ehrhoff skates against the Tampa Bay Lightning on March 6, 2014, at the Tampa Bay Times Forum in Tampa, Fla. Ehrhoff signed  a one-year contract with the Penguins on Tuesday, July 1, 2014.
NHLI via Getty Images - Coyotes goaltender Thomas Greiss gets ready to make a save against the Dallas Stars on April 13, 2014 in Glendale, Ariz. Greiss signed a one-year contract with the Penguins on Tuesday, July 1, 2014.
<div style='float:right;width:100%;' align='right'><em>NHLI via Getty Images</em></div>Coyotes goaltender Thomas Greiss gets ready to make a save against the Dallas Stars on April 13, 2014 in Glendale, Ariz. Greiss signed a one-year contract with the Penguins on Tuesday, July 1, 2014.
NHLI via Getty Images - Blue Jackets forward Blake Comeau skates with the puck against the Penguins in Game 6 of the first round of the Stanley Cup Playoffs on April 28, 2014 at Nationwide Arena in Columbus, Ohio. Comeau signed a one-year contract with the Penguins on Tuesday, July 1, 2014.
<div style='float:right;width:100%;' align='right'><em>NHLI via Getty Images</em></div>Blue Jackets forward Blake Comeau skates with the puck against the Penguins in Game 6 of the first round of the Stanley Cup Playoffs on April 28, 2014 at Nationwide Arena in Columbus, Ohio. Comeau signed a one-year contract with the Penguins on Tuesday, July 1, 2014.
Chaz Palla | Tribune-Review - The Penguins' Marcel Goc knocks down the Blue Jackets' Nikita Nikitin during Game 5 of a first-round Stanley Cup playoff series on Saturday, April 26, 2014, at Consol Energy Center. The Penguins re-signed Goc to a one-year, $1.2 million contract on Tuesday, July 1, 2014.
<div style='float:right;width:100%;' align='right'><em>Chaz Palla  |  Tribune-Review</em></div>The Penguins' Marcel Goc knocks down the Blue Jackets' Nikita Nikitin during Game 5 of a first-round Stanley Cup playoff series on Saturday, April 26, 2014, at Consol Energy Center. The Penguins re-signed Goc to a one-year, $1.2 million contract on Tuesday, July 1, 2014.
AP - Sabres defenseman Christian Ehrhoff in action during a game against the Philadelphia Flyers on Thursday, Nov. 21, 2013, in Philadelphia.
<div style='float:right;width:100%;' align='right'><em>AP</em></div>Sabres defenseman Christian Ehrhoff in action during a game against the Philadelphia Flyers on Thursday, Nov. 21, 2013, in Philadelphia.
AP - The Penguins signed former Sabres defenseman Christian Ehrhoff to a one-year, $4 million deal Tuesday.
<div style='float:right;width:100%;' align='right'><em>AP</em></div>The Penguins signed former Sabres defenseman Christian Ehrhoff to a one-year, $4 million deal Tuesday.

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Christian Ehrhoff

Age: 32 on Sunday

Position: Defenseman

Former team: Buffalo

Size: 6-2, 196

Experience: 10 seasons

Career stats: 69 goals, 244 assists, plus-51, 457 penalty minutes

Contract: 1 year, $4 million

Scouting report: Among the game's top two-way defensemen when he hit free agent market three years ago, Ehrhoff is skilled enough to run the point on a power play.

Thomas Greiss

Age: 28

Position: Goalie

Former team: Phoenix

Size: 6-1, 220

Experience: Five seasons

Career stats: 27-24-8, 2.43 GAA, .915 save percentage, three shutouts

Contract: 1 year, $1 million

Scouting report: Blocked for years amid the Sharks' goaltending depth, Greiss has had only three seasons in which he was considered a No. 2 goalie.

Blake Comeau

Age: 28

Position: Wing

Former team: Columbus

Size: 6-1, 202

Experience: Eight seasons, 422 games

Career stats: 72 goals, 92 assists, minus-52, 223 penalty minutes

Contract: 1 year, $700,000

Scouting report: Four years removed from a 24-goal season with the Islanders, Comeau largely has spent his career playing for poor teams on Long Island and in Calgary and Columbus.

'American Coyotes' Series

Traveling by Jeep, boat and foot, Tribune-Review investigative reporter Carl Prine and photojournalist Justin Merriman covered nearly 2,000 miles over two months along the border with Mexico to report on coyotes — the human traffickers who bring illegal immigrants into the United States. Most are Americans working for money and/or drugs. This series reports how their operations have a major impact on life for residents and the environment along the border — and beyond.

By Josh Yohe
Tuesday, July 1, 2014, 12:21 p.m.
 

The heavy lifting will be left to Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin.

The Penguins improved their blue line and goaltending situations on the opening day of free agency, but they were unable to land a top-six forward to play with their star centers.

As as Tuesday night, issues remained with the Penguins' top six:

• Left wing Chris Kunitz will be 35 before the start of next season. His scoring slowed noticeably in last season's second half.

• Right wing Pascal Dupuis is 35 and recovering from ACL surgery.

• Beau Bennett has scored six goals in 43 games and endured three serious wrist injuries.

• Newly acquired right wing Patric Horqnvist has been a reliable scorer but never has played with Crosby or Malkin.

General manager Jim Rutherford wasn't concerned.

“I'm not sure we have to get a top-six forward at this time,” he said. “We don't necessarily have to have our team all set for the playoffs in September.”

The Penguins didn't anticipate spending so much to acquire another defenseman. But they didn't realize Christian Ehrhoff would be available. One of the NHL's finest two-way defensemen, Ehrhoff agreed to a one-year deal worth $4 million.

“The fact that we could get a guy like Ehrhoff made a big difference,” Rutherford said. “It certainly changed my way of thinking.”

Rutherford intended to spend the bulk of his allotted money on forwards when free agency began. The Penguins contacted Ehrhoff on Monday night to let him know they were interested.

The interest was mutual, and the Penguins were surprised Ehrhoff, 31, was willing to play for a lesser price. That he wanted a one-year deal also was appealing. The Penguins didn't want to lock into a lucrative deal with a defenseman because of the young defensemen in their system.

Three days earlier, associate general manager Jason Botterill said it was “time for the young guys to play.” But that plan might be on hold with Ehrhoff's addition.

Rutherford said the Penguins would spend such money on a defenseman only if “it was the right one.”

“We weren't going in looking for (any) defensemen,” he said. “We feel our young guys can do the job that a lot of these guys who got signed can do.”

Rutherford said during the draft that he wanted to “satisfy” Malkin on Tuesday. But that didn't happen.

Nikolai Kulemin, Malkin's best friend and a free agent right wing, had been targeted. His contract demands, however, are making a deal difficult.

“It would take someone getting very, very creative to figure out how that contract would fit into our cap,” Rutherford said. “As we speak, there's nothing in that regard.”

Rutherford has $8.3 million of room under the salary cap and would like to sign restricted free agents Brandon Sutter, Nick Spaling and Simon Despres.

The only other players signed by the Penguins were fourth-line players Marcel Goc, who received a one-year, $1.2 million deal, and Blake Comeau, formerly of the Columbus Blue Jackets.

Goaltender Thomas Greiss was also signed and will compete with Jeff Zatkoff for the backup goaltender role.

The depth at forward will have to wait.

“But it was a very good day,” Rutherford said.

Note: The Penguins also signed forward Nick Drazenovic and defenseman Taylor Chorney to one-year, two-way contracts worth $550,000 at the NHL level.

Josh Yohe is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. Reach him at jyohe@tribweb.com or via Twitter @JoshYohe_Trib.

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