In the estimation of general manager Jim Rutherford, the Pittsburgh Penguins are “on the bubble” to make the playoffs this season.
His strategy for getting off the bubble includes adding some muscle to his blue line.
Rutherford brought physicality to his injured defense corps just before Monday’s NHL trade deadline, acquiring Erik Gudbranson from the Vancouver Canucks in exchange for winger Tanner Pearson.
In a swap of players currently in the AHL, the Penguins also picked up defenseman Chris Wideman from Florida in exchange for Jean-Sebastien Dea.
Gudbranson, 27, is a classic big, rangy, physical defender. He is 6-foot-5, 217 pounds and leads Canucks defensemen with 132 hits this season. He plays on the penalty kill. He stands up for teammates, amassing 27 fighting majors in his NHL career. He also has pedigree, going third overall in the 2010 draft.
His statistical profile is nowhere near as flattering. His shot-attempt percentage has been in the black for a season only once in his eight-year NHL career, and this season, he is last in the league with a minus-27 rating.
Rutherford isn’t sure if those numbers will improve once he joins the Penguins. That wasn’t the point in acquiring him anyway.
“That doesn’t describe why you want certain players,” Rutherford said. “In Erik’s case, he’s a real heart-and-soul guy. He’s a good dressing room guy. He’s got good character, and he can protect our players. He puts us in a stronger position to push back when we get into more physical games.”
Pearson didn’t make much of an impact, positive or negative, in 44 games with the Penguins after coming in from Los Angeles in a November trade for Carl Hagelin. He had nine goals and 14 points and recently was playing on the fourth line.
Gudbranson’s and Pearson’s contracts are similar. Both are signed through 2020-21. Gudbranson makes $4 million and Pearson $3.75 million.
“The fact that we trade Pearson after acquiring him doesn’t mean we didn’t like him,” Rutherford said. “We were looking for somebody to produce a little bit more than Hagelin did, and Pearson did that. But, at the same time, when you have a chance to get a player like Gudbranson, you have to give something for him.”
Adding depth on defense became a priority for Rutherford when Brian Dumoulin and Kris Letang joined Olli Maatta on the injured list Saturday. Dumoulin has a concussion. Letang is day-to-day with an upper-body injury.
Rutherford said the injury news on Letang has been encouraging, and team isn’t expecting to play without its top-pairing defensemen for long. Still, given the way the standings look — the Penguins are tied with Carolina for the eighth and final playoff spot in the Eastern Conference with 20 games to play — merely calling up reinforcements from the minors wasn’t enough.
Having added Gudbranson, Rutherford said he was confident in his team’s ability to contend for a championship, provided some improvements are made from within.
“We’re good enough to get in,” Rutherford said. “We’re good enough to take a run. We’ve played at stretches of time against the top teams, and we’ve played well but there’s some inconsistencies in our play.
“We have to have everything going that makes you a good team. Our goaltending has to be consistent and strong. We have to get healthy on defense, and, hopefully, we can do that by this weekend. Our forwards have to do what they’re capable of doing. I feel comfortable with this team, but I say that at this time being a little bit nervous as to whether we’re going to get in. It’s going to be a battle until the end.”
Born: Jan. 7, 1992
Hometown: Ottawa, Ontario
Height, weight: 6-5, 217
This season: 57 games, 2 goals, 8 points, 83 penalty minutes, minus-27 rating with Vancouver
Career stats: 448 games, 16 goals, 62 points, 482 penalty minutes, minus-97 rating with Florida and Vancouver
Career highlights: Drafted third overall by Florida in 2010. … Made NHL debut as 19-year-old. … Scored first NHL goal on the Rangers’ Henrik Lundqvist on Dec. 11, 2011. … Traded from Florida to Vancouver for Jared McCann and two draft picks on May 25, 2016.