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At start of free agency, Penguins general manager changes plan

| 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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