Kevin Gorman: Penguins banking big on Jim Rutherford’s makeover moves
The Pittsburgh Penguins raised eyebrows around the NHL on Monday when they signed winger Brandon Tanev to a free-agent contract that was long in term and steep in price.
General manager Jim Rutherford was blunt in his assessment of the price to pay to sign a bottom-six forward who had 14 goals and 29 points last season on the first day of free agency.
Apparently, it’s six years and $21 million.
“It’s the way things work on July 1,” Rutherford said Monday at UPMC Lemieux Sports Complex in Cranberry. “You either give the player close to what he wants, or you don’t get the player.”
It’s also the way things worked June 29, when the Penguins wanted to get rid of the player. They gave Phil Kessel exactly what he wanted — a one-way ticket to Phoenix to play for the Arizona Coyotes — in return for a winger and a prospect.
Beats a wing and a prayer, I guess.
Last July 1, Rutherford gave Jack Johnson a five-year, $16.5 million contract in free agency, only for the defenseman to prove to be a player the Penguins wish they didn’t get.
Tanev comes at a cost but looks like a perfect fit for the Penguins. He ranked third in the NHL with 287 hits and led the Winnipeg Jets with 81 blocked shots. He’s strong on the forecheck and penalty kill and can score short-handed goals.
Rutherford promised a Penguins makeover, and he certainly has delivered a different look to a 100-point team that was swept in the first round of the Stanley Cup playoffs by a team that was swept in the second round by a team that was swept in the Eastern Conference final by a team that lost in the Cup Final.
That’s how far removed the Penguins were from winning a sixth Cup championship last season. Their solution was to trade a point-a-game scorer and sign a bottom-six forward. Those aren’t their only moves, just the most prominent.
But there’s this: Who’s going to score goals?
The Penguins have to replace Kessel’s scoring touch. He had 110 goals and 303 points in four seasons with the Penguins and 27 goals last season despite a 16-game goal-scoring drought.
They acquired Alex Galchenyuk from the Coyotes, but he has 108 goals in his seven-year NHL career. They acquired Dominik Kahun from the Chicago Blackhawks in the Olli Maatta trade, but he had 13 goals in his rookie season. And they acquired Tanev, who has 24 career goals in four seasons with Winnipeg.
For all of Kessel’s defensive deficiencies, he and Galchenyuk were minus-19 last season. Kahun and Tanev combined for a plus-19 rating, but subtracting Maatta (plus-9) and, say, Bryan Rust (plus-10) would cancel that out.
How are the Penguins a better team?
An organization built upon star power, one that hangs banners for its scoring champions, is replacing a highly skilled player with role players. The bottom six is better, but the top six is worse, even if Galchenyuk and Kahun are more productive skating alongside Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin.
Rutherford isn’t done dealing. He had a one-word description of his salary-cap situation — tight — and said “there’s a good chance we will have to make another move.” But it’s likely to be one that involves subtracting salary, not adding scoring.
Of course, there’s the narrative that trading Kessel was addition by subtraction, of ridding the Penguins of their biggest problem because of his defensive indifference, turnovers and attitude.
Maybe it’s true Kessel had fulfilled his role as a hired gun, a sniper who complemented Crosby and Malkin as a third scorer, and had worn out his welcome. Maybe Jake Guentzel’s elevation to 40-goal scorer made Kessel expendable.
Yes, the Penguins now have more balance, depth and versatility, giving them the ability to roll lines and play sound defense. Rutherford continues to take risks and make changes — to the culture and the roster — in an effort to push the Penguins back into Cup contention.
The Penguins gave the players what they wanted.
Now, they’re banking big that Rutherford got the right players.
Kevin Gorman is a Tribune-Review staff writer. You can contact Kevin by email at [email protected] or via Twitter .