Injuries on defense ramp up trade deadline pressure on Penguins
A little more than a week ago, Pittsburgh Penguins general manager Jim Rutherford was in a somewhat enviable position as it relates to Monday’s NHL trade deadline.
Oh, his team hadn’t yet lived up to its potential, playing maddeningly inconsistent hockey and hovering around the fringes of the Eastern Conference playoff race, but the pieces were starting to fall into place.
He already completed his big late-season deal, picking up Nick Bjugstad and Jared McCann from Florida and giving them time to settle into their new surroundings.
He was getting a key player who had been out for most of the season, defenseman Justin Schultz, back from injury. Evgeni Malkin was returning from an injury absence, too.
Rutherford could sit back at the deadline and see what developed. The team needed to get better, but he didn’t have a particular area of weakness that had to be addressed. If an impact player popped free at a reasonable price, he could make a move for him.
“It’s always a better position to be in,” Rutherford said last week.
In the blink of an eye Saturday night at Lincoln Financial Field, Rutherford’s position became significantly less favorable.
Brian Dumoulin suffered a concussion on a Wayne Simmonds hit. Kris Letang suffered an upper-body injury in a wrestling match with Shayne Gostisbehere after coming to Dumoulin’s defense.
Olli Maatta already is out indefinitely with a shoulder injury thanks to a Phil Varone hit the last time the Penguins were in Philadelphia.
The blue line is getting dangerously thin, and the grip on a playoff spot is precarious at best.
If Dumoulin and Letang won’t be out long, the Penguins can handle the situation internally. Juuso Riikola is a capable two-way defender who has been a healthy scratch for the past four games. In Wilkes-Barre, Zach Trotman has NHL experience, and Ethan Prow is having an AHL all-star season.
“We have capable guys,” coach Mike Sullivan said. “It’s going to give other guys opportunities. Hopefully we won’t lose either one of them for any length of time.”
If either of the top-pair defenders is out for an extended period, Rutherford probably has to act. The race for a playoff berth is too tight not to.
If he decided to add a defenseman, his options aren’t exactly limitless.
When it comes to the rental market — players on expiring contracts who can be acquired from rebuilding teams for a draft pick or a prospect — defensemen aren’t plentiful.
Former Penguins defenseman Ben Lovejoy isn’t exactly a marquee name league wide, and he was one of the top rentals available. He went to Dallas from New Jersey for a third-round pick and a player.
New York Rangers bruiser Adam McQuaid is probably the top rental left, so he likely will command a heavy price. Anaheim’s Michael Del Zotto is another candidate. He’s a puck mover who played under Sullivan with the Rangers.
Rutherford repeatedly has said he would prefer not to trade away his first-round pick in June’s draft, but if a defenseman with term left on his contract were to become available, he could change his tune. Ottawa’s Cody Ceci and Los Angeles’ Alex Martinez fit in this category.
The Penguins have enough cap space to add only about $2 million in salary, according to capfriendly.com. Their prospect pool is shallow, and they already have traded away their second- and third-round picks in other moves.
Rutherford said he doesn’t think any of those factors would stop him from making a move should he decide to.
“I don’t think we’re restrained,” Rutherford said. “We definitely have things other teams want. We do have some cap space. Not a lot. We have over a million bucks at this point. When you don’t and the right player comes along, you have to get real creative. There’s always ways to make it work if both teams want to make it work.”
Jonathan Bombulie is a Tribune-Review assistant sports editor. You can contact Jonathan by email at [email protected] or via Twitter .