Mark Madden: Penguins GM Jim Rutherford’s deadline deals unlikely to matter much
Every time the NHL trade deadline comes around, Penguins fans want the team to trade for Ron Francis again. Like in 1991.
That’s speaking metaphorically. But local hockey nostalgia holds that a blockbuster trade is a harbinger for winning a Stanley Cup, especially since it happened again the next year, 1992, with Rick Tocchet. (More recent Cups have generated a different sort of nostalgia: “H-B-K! H-B-K!” and the idea that Ian Cole is irreplaceable.)
What GM Jim Rutherford did at the NHL trade deadline, however, didn’t bust any blocks. He made two minor deals that likely will prove inconsequential.
Let’s hope, anyway. Defenseman Chris Wideman got sent to the Penguins’ minor league affiliate at Wilkes-Barre/Scranton immediately upon acquisition from Florida, and that’s with Kris Letang, Brian Dumoulin and Olli Maatta all hurt.
A cholera epidemic likely would be required to press Wideman into NHL duty.
But getting defenseman Erik Gudbranson from Vancouver isn’t likely to result in bouquets being strewn at Rutherford’s feet. Not initially, certainly.
Gudbranson has the NHL’s worst plus/minus at minus-27. If you’re not enamored of that stat, Gudbranson’s advanced metrics also stink.
But acquiring Gudbranson has almost zero risk involved. Giving winger Tanner Pearson in exchange is no loss. The Penguins’ cap goes up by just a quarter million. Gudbranson is a decent stop-gap given the injury situation. He shoots right — big plus.
When Letang returns, Gudbranson becomes the right-side defenseman on the bottom pair. Paying somebody at that spot a pro-rated chunk of $3.75 million is a bit pricey, but it’s not my money.
Gudbranson’s partner on that bottom pair easily could be Jack Johnson. Those enamored of fancy stats might be in danger of their heads exploding.
Getting Gudbranson is a minor deal. He’s signed for two more years, but somebody would trade for him. Rutherford did. Gudbranson was third pick overall in the 2010 NHL Draft. He has pedigree and size (6-foot-5, 217 pounds), just not latter-day NHL style.
Johnson hasn’t blossomed since arriving in Pittsburgh this past offseason. But a few blue-line reclamation projects have turned their careers around here: Justin Schultz and Marcus Pettersson on the current team, Cole and Trevor Daley in the recent past.
That might be coaching, especially the one-on-one tutelage provided by assistant Sergei Gonchar. It might be playing with better players or a mere change of scenery.
But getting Gudbranson can’t implode, because the Penguins gave up little to get him. If he stinks, play somebody else. Getting Letang and Dumoulin healthy ASAP (and eventually Maatta) is of far greater concern. Maybe Gudbranson is just a fill-in. If he turns out to be better, that would help.
But the citizens just love to get angry, because a GM who is the architect of two Cups in the past three years deserves zero benefit of the doubt.
Remember the hoi polloi’s reaction when the Penguins sent winger Daniel Sprong to Anaheim for Pettersson this past Dec. 3? You’d have thought Rutherford ditched Rocket Richard. But Sprong has been a healthy scratch for the Ducks’ last four games, and Pettersson has been more than serviceable playing a regular shift.
You lose, Twitter.
Some trades work. Some don’t. No GM is infallible.
The most probable result of Rutherford’s deadline deals this season is that neither will matter very much.
Letang, Dumoulin and Maatta getting healthy is important. Phil Kessel and Patric Hornqvist breaking out of slumps is important.
Matt Murray finding consistency is most important of all.
The goaltender was diabolically bad in the Penguins’ 4-3 overtime loss Saturday at Philadelphia’s Lincoln Financial Field. The tying and winning goals were awful, and the first Flyers’ goal came on a stoppable shot that was their only good chance of the first period.
Murray hasn’t been useless. His .912 save percentage and 2.97 goals-against average are both middle-of-the-pack figures. Murray got red-hot after returning from injury in mid-December, winning nine straight and conceding just 14 goals in those games.
But Murray’s bad outings and bad goals can be soul-crushing, and he’s plainly lost some of the coaching staff’s trust. Murray is also brittle.
If Murray plays badly or can’t find consistency or gets hurt again, nothing else that transpires with the Penguins matters. Certainly not Rutherford’s two deadline-day trades.
Mark Madden hosts a radio show 3-6 p.m. weekdays on WXDX-FM 105.9.