After trading Phil Kessel, Penguins can dip toes into free agent pool | TribLIVE.com
Penguins/NHL

After trading Phil Kessel, Penguins can dip toes into free agent pool

Jonathan Bombulie
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Chaz Palla | Tribune-Review
Penguins general manager Jim Rutherford speaks to the media during a news conference Tuesday, April 28, 2015 at Consol Energy Center.

As of now, the trade Pittsburgh Penguins general manager Jim Rutherford made Saturday night will be remembered as the Phil Kessel-for-Alex Galchenyuk swap.

By Monday afternoon, it could have a slightly different flavor.

Before saving $1.9 million in salary cap space by completing the Kessel deal, Rutherford said the Penguins wouldn’t have the financial flexibility to make much of a splash when the NHL’s free-agent signing period opens at noon Monday.

Now they have a little bit of room to maneuver.

“If we could add something in free agency, it becomes part of this whole scenario,” Rutherford said.

Adding players via free agency is a process fraught with peril and potential roadblocks.

The Penguins opened a little bit of salary cap space but not much. By the time they re-sign restricted free agents Marcus Pettersson, Zach Aston-Reese and Teddy Blueger, they probably will have a little more than $2 million to work with.

That might leave them shopping on the Valtteri Filppula or Pierre-Edouard Bellemare shelf.

If they want to graduate to the Micheal Ferland or Patrick Maroon display, they would have to move more salary in a separate transaction.

That’s not out of the question. When he made a trade with Chicago to open up cap space earlier this offseason, Rutherford said he was deciding whether to send out Olli Maatta or Jack Johnson. He chose Maatta, but if a free agent comes along that is to his liking, the answer ultimately might be both.

Rutherford could exceed the salary cap temporarily Monday afternoon — that is allowed in the offseason — and hope opposing GMs won’t rake him over the coals too badly when he goes to make a salary-saving trade later on in the summer.

On balance, July 1 is a minefield for NHL general managers. Demand outstrips supply, and free agents command contracts that far outweigh their contributions on the ice.

Rutherford’s record of adding players in trades since he took over as Penguins GM in 2014 is more or less outstanding. The evidence is on the ring fingers of players such as Kessel, Justin Schultz, Carl Hagelin and Trevor Daley.

His history in free agency is far less flattering. Over the previous five summers, Rutherford signed four free agents to contracts worth more than $1 million annually. Christian Ehrhoff, Eric Fehr, Matt Hunwick and Johnson aren’t exactly waiting breathlessly to have their Penguins jersey numbers retired.

Whatever Rutherford decides to do at the top end of the depth chart, the bottom end will need to be attended to with players on two-way contracts who could try to win a job in training camp or be called up from Wilkes-Barre/Scranton when injuries strike.

On defense, the Penguins already locked up two such players when they re-signed Zach Trotman and Kevin Czuczman last week. They still might need to add another depth defenseman, especially because AHL All-Star Ethan Prow is expected to leave in free agency.

At forward, the Penguins have less of a free-agent need because they have more young players ready to step in on at least a fill-in basis at the NHL level. Finnish signing Oula Palve, speedy winger Adam Johnson and Wilkes-Barre/Scranton leading scorer Sam Lafferty fit that description.

There also remains a possibility the Penguins could bring back winger Garrett Wilson, who played 50 NHL games last season, though he is about to hit unrestricted free agency.

In goal, the Penguins might need to add a depth free agent if prospect Tristan Jarry is traded. Jarry would have to clear waivers to be sent to the AHL again in the fall.

“It’s different year by year, just because of who you drafted three years ago,” assistant GM Bill Guerin said. “It kind of goes and flows. We have a couple of younger guys (at forward). We have to make sure we supplement with free agents to make sure we’re OK.”

Jonathan Bombulie is a Tribune-Review staff writer. You can contact Jonathan by email at [email protected] or via Twitter .

Categories: Sports | Penguins
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