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Penguins boost defensive depth on 1st day of free agency

Jonathan Bombulie
| Friday, July 1, 2016, 11:51 a.m.
Maple Leafs defenseman Stuart Percy heads up ice with the puck against the Canadiens on Oct. 8, 2014, at the Air Canada Centre in Toronto.
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Maple Leafs defenseman Stuart Percy heads up ice with the puck against the Canadiens on Oct. 8, 2014, at the Air Canada Centre in Toronto.
Penguins defenseman Steven Oleksy plays in a preseason game on Saturday, Sept. 26, 2015, at Consol Energy Center.
Penguins defenseman Steven Oleksy plays in a preseason game on Saturday, Sept. 26, 2015, at Consol Energy Center.
Penguins left wing Tom Sestito (47) fights Flyers center Chris VandeVelde (76) during the third period Saturday, April 9, 2016, in Philadelphia.
USA Today Sports
Penguins left wing Tom Sestito (47) fights Flyers center Chris VandeVelde (76) during the third period Saturday, April 9, 2016, in Philadelphia.
The Sharks' Melker Karlsson (right) skates against the Penguiins' David Warsofsky on Tuesday, Dec. 1, 2015, in San Jose, Calif.
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The Sharks' Melker Karlsson (right) skates against the Penguiins' David Warsofsky on Tuesday, Dec. 1, 2015, in San Jose, Calif.
The Penguins' Ben Lovejoy plays against the Capitals during Game 4 of their Eastern Conference second-round playoff series Wednesday, May 4, 2016, at Consol Energy Center.
Chaz Palla | Tribune-Review
The Penguins' Ben Lovejoy plays against the Capitals during Game 4 of their Eastern Conference second-round playoff series Wednesday, May 4, 2016, at Consol Energy Center.
Stars defenseman Cameron Gaunce handles the puck during a game against the Canucks on Thursday, Dec. 19, 2013, in Dallas.
Associated Press
Stars defenseman Cameron Gaunce handles the puck during a game against the Canucks on Thursday, Dec. 19, 2013, in Dallas.
Sabres defenseman Chad Ruhwedel (5) makes an outlet pass against the Penguins on Monday, Jan. 27, 2014, in Pittsburgh.
Sabres defenseman Chad Ruhwedel (5) makes an outlet pass against the Penguins on Monday, Jan. 27, 2014, in Pittsburgh.

Associate general manager Jason Botterill got the itch Friday afternoon.

When the clock struck noon and the NHL free agent signing period opened, teams across the league started throwing big-money contracts at potential impact players. Botterill wanted to get in on the action.

But with only about $1 million in space under the salary cap, the Penguins didn't have the ability to hand out seven-figure contracts. And having won a Stanley Cup less than a month ago, they didn't have the inclination to make major changes to their roster.

So the Penguins largely stood pat, watching a couple of the players who helped them win a championship sign elsewhere and adding a handful of depth players on NHL minimum-salary deals.

“You always get a little antsy on July 1, and you want to be a part of things, but if you look at us, some of our best signings have been later on in the summer,” Botterill said. “You look at a guy like Matt Cullen last year. It was later on in the summer. So (general manager Jim Rutherford is) always looking to try to improve the team, but we knew from Day 1 we weren't going to be big players here on July 1.”

Defenseman Ben Lovejoy took a three-year deal worth about $8 million with former Penguins general manager Ray Shero and the New Jersey Devils.

Goalie Jeff Zatkoff returned to the organization that drafted him, signing a two-year, $1.8 million deal to back up Jonathan Quick with the Los Angeles Kings.

Rutherford said he hasn't ruled out re-signing Cullen, a veteran center, or offensive defenseman Justin Schultz, but given the Penguins' salary-cap situation, they can't get into a bidding war.

“They're obviously getting some attention,” Rutherford said. “They're going to have to make a decision soon.”

Rutherford said the Penguins might put off potential roster alterations until later in the summer or even after next season begins.

“We're listening real close to what's going on and keeping a close eye on some of these players that haven't signed yet,” he said. “We may have something later. We may not. Maybe a week, two. But I'm certainly not anxious to make changes right now.

“If we have to make any adjustments, we'll do it maybe in December or January. Hopefully we don't have to make any.”

The moves the Penguins made provided needed depth on the blue line. They signed five defensemen who could slot in somewhere between seventh and 15th on the organizational depth chart. All agreed to one-year, two-way deals that will pay them $575,000 at the NHL level.

They brought back David Warsofsky, a 26-year-old puck mover who had one goal in 12 games with the Penguins last season before being lost to the Devils on a waiver claim Feb. 29.

They re-signed Steve Oleksy, a 30-year-old physical defender who skated with the main practice group as the eighth defenseman at the end of the team's run to the Stanley Cup.

They added Stuart Percy, Cameron Gaunce and Chad Ruhwedel, free agent defensemen who primarily are known for their ability to move the puck.

The Penguins also brought back heavyweight Tom Sestito on a one-year, two-way contract.

“It's interesting how organizations go through different sort of swings,” Botterill said. “A few years ago, we had a plethora of young defensemen throughout our system. Now we're very excited about some of the young forwards we have coming in.”

Botterill touted the development of Jake Guentzel, Teddy Blueger, Jean-Sebastien Dea, Josh Archibald, Dominik Simon and Carter Rowney in particular.

“We feel we have the forwards,” Botterill said, “but we wanted to improve our defense.”

Jonathan Bombulie is a Tribune-Review staff writer. Reach him at jbombulie@tribweb.com or via Twitter at @BombulieTrib.

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