Penguins sign defenseman Matt Hunwick, goalie Antti Niemi
When it came to the first day of NHL free agency, a spot on the league calendar that sometimes can turn into a frenzy, Penguins general manager Jim Rutherford took the emotion out of the equation Saturday.
He watched as players who put two Stanley Cup rings on his fingers parlayed their championship experience into fortune elsewhere. Chris Kunitz, Nick Bonino, Trevor Daley and Ron Hainsey are gone.
He saw rival teams pushing rich contracts in front of big-name free agents and largely stayed out of the fray. He lined up specific targets — 32-year-old defenseman Matt Hunwick and 33-year-old goalie Antti Niemi — and otherwise kept quiet.
He knows he needs to add a third-line center with Bonino gone, and he has discussed trade possibilities with multiple teams in the last week, but he pulled no triggers, electing to wait until the right deal comes his way.
Time will tell if the dispassionate approach was the right one, of course, but there's no doubt that was the plan Rutherford was sticking to.
“We're making a lot of changes,” Rutherford said. “We have some good players that have gone off our team, not only from a playing point of view but from a character and leadership point of view. Some of those changes were dictated by expansion draft, by where guys are in their career, (by) free agency. But we feel as long as we can fill the third-line center role, which we are comfortable that we will, we feel good about the guys that we still have.”
Rutherford declined to put a deadline on himself to make the deal for a Bonino replacement.
“I think it's important now that we don't panic and go after somebody just to say we got a center,” Rutherford said. “I've talked to the coach about this. He says, ‘As long as I've got my two big guys healthy, I can work around anything early in the season.'
“We'll move on one when we're comfortable with somebody that we like. It could be in the next day. It could take us a couple of months. It could take us early in the season before it happens.”
Rutherford found the free-agent offerings more attractive on defense and in goal, so he addressed a couple of vacancies that way.
Hunwick agreed to a three-year deal with an average annual salary of $2.25 million. The 5-foot-11, 200-pound Michigan native is the kind of defensive defenseman the Penguins prefer. He can kill penalties, but he's no crease-clearer, relying instead on his mobility.
“They want guys that are able to move their feet and move the puck,” Hunwick said. “When you have the ability to give it to a (Sidney) Crosby or (Evgeni) Malkin, it's paramount that your defensemen get back there, get moving and get the puck to those guys.”
Some family history also led Hunwick to the Penguins. His grandparents grew up in the Uniontown area, and he has an aunt who lives in McClellandtown in Fayette County.
“A three-year deal, you have an opportunity to do some special things with this group,” Hunwick said. “I want to be a part of this going forward. It's four-and-a-half hours from my house. It's a great town. All those things made it an easy decision.”
Niemi, meanwhile, is the choice to replace franchise cornerstone Marc-Andre Fleury.
Niemi's resume is exemplary, including a Stanley Cup championship as Chicago's starter in 2010 and five superb seasons with San Jose after that, but it's clear why he was available to the Penguins on a one-year deal for $700,000.
He is coming off a brutal year with Dallas, going 12-12-4 with an .892 save percentage. The Stars bought out the last year of his three-year, $13.5 million contract last month.
“I think I just had a really tough last three months,” Niemi said. “I feel like I was able to play quite well until mid-January, but not getting ice time (stinks). It kind of ruined the season.”
Niemi shouldn't have that problem next season. Rutherford said he'd like to see the Finnish veteran play between 30 and 40 games to help keep Matt Murray fresh for the playoffs.
Niemi said he's looking forward to working with new Penguins goalie coach Mike Buckley, whom he's heard good things about, and to forming a tandem in net with the 23-year-old Murray.
“He's of course a great young goaltender, and maybe I can even learn something from him,” Niemi said. “I think it's going to be a great fit.”