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Penguins

Penguins sign Jamie Oleksiak to 3-year deal

Jonathan Bombulie
| Thursday, July 12, 2018, 6:30 p.m.

The final piece of the Penguins’ offseason puzzle on defense was snapped into place Thursday.

It was a 6-foot-7 piece.

Jamie Oleksiak, the hulking defenseman acquired in a midseason trade with Dallas last year, signed a three-year contract with the Penguins on Thursday, the team announced. The deal carries an average annual salary of $2,137,500.

Oleksiak, 25, was effective after joining the Penguins in December, recording four goals and 14 points in 47 games. His plus-13 rating was second to Justin Schultz’s plus-22 among the team’s defensemen. He also ranked tied for fifth in the league with seven fighting majors.

The new deal represents a significant raise for Oleksiak, who hit restricted free agency after making $964,688 last season and was headed for a July 28 arbitration hearing had the matter not been settled amicably.

The Penguins might have been able to sign Oleksiak to a contract with a smaller cap hit had they restricted the deal to one or two years, but general manager Jim Rutherford had no qualms making the longer commitment.

“He came in and he fit in nice with us,” general manager Jim Rutherford said. “We still see an upside to his game, but certainly a guy of that size who can skate the way he can and bring the physical element along with his skill level, we find him as a good fit in our top six.”

Exactly which side Oleksiak fits best on remains to be seen.

The return of Oleksiak coupled with the signing of free agent Jack Johnson gives the Penguins four left-handed defensemen in their top six. Rutherford said he thinks Johnson is the best equipped to play on the right side, but Oleksiak could make the switch as well.

“The coaches will play around with it and make that decision and see what fits the best,” Rutherford said.

Rutherford came into the offseason with the intention of tweaking his team’s personnel on defense. In the span of a few months, he has picked up Johnson, re-signed Oleksiak, traded Matt Hunwick to Buffalo and added Finnish free agent Juuso Riikola on a two-way deal.

“We accomplished the balance and depth part now,” Rutherford said. “We also signed Riikola out of Europe. We like him. We’ll see how long it takes for him to adjust to the NHL game, but yeah, we like the balance on defense and forward right now.”

With Oleksiak in the fold, the Penguins are about $1.4 million under the NHL’s $79.5 million salary cap with 13 forwards, seven defensemen and two goalies under contract.

With the team presumably set on defense and in goal and exceptionally deep at center and right wing, the only area where further offseason roster alterations might make sense is at left wing. Coincidentally, Montreal’s Max Pacioretty and Carolina’s Jeff Skinner, both left wings, are among the most high-profile players reportedly available on the trade block.

Rutherford, however, said he’s not anxious to make a deal. Centers Matt Cullen and Riley Sheahan have experience on the wing, and sliding Derick Brassard to a top-six spot on the left is an option, as is switching righty Bryan Rust to his off side.

“We feel comfortable with the lineup we have right now going into camp and we’ll take it from there,” Rutherford said. “With that being said, at this point in July, sometimes the odd player slips through the cracks. Thought they were getting signed on July 1. We’ll stay in the loop on that if we can find somebody that we feel can help our team. Other than that, that’s about it.”

Jonathan Bombulie is a Tribune-Review staff writer. You can contact Jonathan at jbombulie@tribweb.com or via Twitter @BombulieTrib.

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