Penguins GM Jim Rutherford backs Jack Johnson, lays out deadline plan
Given the abundance of high-end talent reportedly available on the rental market, Pittsburgh Penguins general manager Jim Rutherford could absolutely make a sexy addition to his roster before Monday’s NHL trade deadline.
He is not, however, trying to aggressively reshape a defense corps that he is largely pleased with.
And that includes Jack Johnson, who has been a lightning rod for fan criticism since the Penguins signed him to a five-year free-agent contract in July.
“Jack never got a fair shot from the first day he got here, and it started with the (first) media scrum,” Rutherford said Wednesday morning. “I really couldn’t believe the questions that a newly acquired player was asked through that media scrum, and that’s what started the ball rolling toward the fans.”
During his introductory press conference, Johnson was asked about his complicated exit from the Columbus organization, which included a series of healthy scratches in the playoffs, and his lackluster career analytics.
Since he has joined the Penguins, Johnson has profiled poorly in the shot-based metrics often used to evaluate players in the modern NHL. He also leads the team in hits and is second in blocked shots.
“Jack had an adjustment period early in the year, but I think when he played with (Marcus) Pettersson, even playing on his off side, I thought he played well,” Rutherford said. “He’s played really well with (Justin) Schultz, which is easier for him because he’s playing on his natural side. I don’t think he’s been given a fair shot and overall I’ve been fine with his play.”
Rutherford didn’t rule out adding a defenseman on an expiring contract if the right situation presents itself, but in general, he said he is pleased with his depth on the blue line.
There won’t be a crisis even if Olli Maatta’s return from a shoulder injury doesn’t go as well the Penguins hope, Rutherford said.
“It doesn’t complicate things,” Rutherford said. “We have good depth in our defense. (Juuso) Riikola has played well for us. (Chad) Ruhwedel has come in now after sitting out for a while and played well. He’s actually played bigger minutes than he probably has in prior years. And we’ve got (Zach) Trotman in Wilkes-Barre that we like.
“If a name comes along that makes sense to us, then I’ll take a look at it. If this is what we’re going with down the stretch on our defense, I’m OK with it.”
Given how the trade market is shaping up, the area where some really appealing names could come along is at forward.
Ottawa’s Mark Stone and Matt Duchene and Columbus’ Artemi Panarin are stars who could be on the move, and there’s an abundance of talented, potentially available forwards in a tier just below them – Philadelphia’s Wayne Simmonds, the Rangers’ Mats Zuccarello, Ottawa’s Ryan Dzingel, New Jersey’s Marcus Johansson and Carolina’s Micheal Ferland, just to name a few.
Could Rutherford dip his toe into that pool?
He doesn’t want to trade away his first-round pick in June’s draft and he doesn’t have a ton of salary cap space to work with, but under the right conditions, it’s certainly possible.
“That’s why I’m not sitting here saying I’m doing something or I’m not doing something,” Rutherford said. “I do think there will be a scramble at the end of names that will pop up. So I’m not closing the door to say I’m not doing anything.
“It will be very difficult for me to trade our first pick, certainly in a rental situation. Now, if it’s for another good young player, like guys we’ve acquired, then I guess that’s a different story. But my preference is to keep that pick. We’ll see where it falls. I’d only be guessing at this point.”
Jonathan Bombulie is a Tribune-Review assistant sports editor. You can contact Jonathan by email at [email protected] or via Twitter .