Balance is buzzword for Penguins in critical offseason
With the draft on the horizon this weekend and the free-agent signing period opening the following Sunday, NHL teams are reaching the point in the offseason where they traditionally reshape their rosters.
As general manager Jim Rutherford navigates those waters for the Penguins, one buzzword will guide his actions.
He already has plenty of strong links in his roster chain, starting with two generational stars occupying the top two center spots on the depth chart. The goal is to eliminate the weak links.
"I'd like to get more balance at forward and defense," Rutherford said. "More depth and more balance at forward and defense.
"We could go without making any changes, come back with the same team and be a contending team because I know some of the players that we have will have better years next year. Or we could decide to make some changes and try to do it that way. We just have to see what's available."
While Rutherford surely isn't planning to make all his summer roster decisions based on a two-week snapshot, his team's problems in the area of balance were very much on display in a second-round playoff loss to the Washington Capitals.
On defense, Kris Letang averaged more than 25 minutes per game against the Capitals while third-pair defensemen Jamie Oleksiak and Chad Ruhwedel averaged about 15.
Would better balance on defense have helped the Penguins stop Washington's attack? It's impossible to say for sure, but in the 2017 playoffs, all six defensemen averaged between 18 and 22 minutes and the Penguins won the Stanley Cup.
At the other end of the ice, only four Penguins forwards — the aforementioned generational stars Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin along with Jake Guentzel and Patric Hornqvist — managed to score against the Capitals.
Would a goal here or there from the third or fourth line have tipped the scales in favor of the Penguins? Again, it's hard to say, but in a 2017 playoff series against the Capitals, secondary scorers Matt Cullen, Bryan Rust, Carl Hagelin and Nick Bonino found the back of the net in a seven-game victory.
While standing pat and assuming some key players will have better seasons than they did last year remains a viable option for Rutherford, it's more likely that he will attempt to improve his team's balance in the free-agent and trade markets.
By the time the Penguins re-sign six key restricted free agents, they probably will be pretty close to the salary cap ceiling, which is expected to rise from $75 million to somewhere around $80 million next season.
If Rutherford decides to seek balance by adding a low-cost right-handed defenseman or fourth-line right winger, he could do so with few changes to his roster.
If he goes after a big fish — pursuing superstar John Tavares, as several national media reports have suggested Rutherford might, surely would bring a new definition to the term "balance" — significant salary cap surgery would be required.
Rutherford said he's open to multiple ideas, especially once free agents can start talking to teams next Monday, but he doesn't have any particular salary dump in mind.
"We're not going to be able to move anybody out that's going to open up a huge amount of cap space, but if we get to a point where we're really comfortable with an unrestricted guy and we target him, then I would look at possibly moving someone out if we think we can improve our team," Rutherford said. "I'm open to it, but until I know what the cap is and get to a point where I can actually talk to the UFAs, I don't have a definite answer."
In the trade market, any deal Rutherford might make would have to improve his team's roster immediately, not down the road, and would have to fit within salary cap restraints. As such, a "hockey deal," trading from a position of strength to improve a position of weakness, makes the most sense.
In either scenario, though, Rutherford isn't trying to collect as many hockey cards as he can this summer. He's just looking for — well, you know by now.
"Like I said," he repeated, "we're trying to get more balance."
Jonathan Bombulie is a Tribune-Review staff writer. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org or via Twitter @BombulieTrib.