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Tim Benz: Penguins wingers must pay off faith Jim Rutherford wants to show | TribLIVE.com
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Tim Benz: Penguins wingers must pay off faith Jim Rutherford wants to show

Tim Benz
| Wednesday, February 6, 2019 6:21 a.m

If Jim Rutherford said it, it must be true.

Few people are more trustworthy than a general manager approaching the trade deadline, right?

Just like a politician near Election Day, a lawyer during closing arguments, or a car salesman on the lot of a “Holiday Sale-A-Thon Special!”

But the Penguins GM tends to be more forthcoming and a bit less cloak-and-dagger than his peers around pro sports.

So maybe he meant it when he told 105.9 The X this week that he wasn’t actively seeking the acquisition of another winger for his club between now and Feb. 25.

“Once we’re 100 percent healthy, we should have 12 forwards that can move up and down the lineup,” Rutherford told Mark Madden. “If you pointed out a winger and the deal was right, you don’t walk away from it. It’s not something that I’m making calls for every day to see what’s out there.

“The wingers that everybody would like to see here are going to command a big price — a first-round pick and something more. I’m trying to stay away from moving our first-round pick.”

I can believe that. At least, the second part of that.

And maybe, well, part of the other part.

I believe Rutherford wants an opportunity to draft in the first round this year. The Penguins farm system isn’t exactly bubbling with talent these days. One reason: The team has made a first-round selection only once since 2012 (Kasperi Kapanen). The rest were traded at various times to acquire current NHL talent.

So that’s the part I buy. In a perfect world, Rutherford would like to hold onto a first-round pick if at all possible, especially since the club already shipped a second-rounder and two fourth-rounders as grease to push Derick Brassard down to Florida.

What I’m a bit more dubious about is Rutherford’s stated level of confidence in his current forward group.

I wonder about that even more after Tuesday night’s lackluster 4-0 home loss against Carolina.

Given Patric Hornqvist’s struggles to find the net of late (he has one goal since New Year’s Eve) and his mounting concussion issues, I imagine Rutherford is less than secure regarding his team’s collective net-front presence. Hornqvist is the lone Penguin who is naturally suited for that role.

In theory, newly acquired Nick Bjugstad and his 6-foot-6, 218-pound frame should be able to absorb that task. But that wasn’t the nature of his game with the Panthers.

Also, if he is slotted in the third-line center capacity — once Evgeni Malkin comes back from injury — that doesn’t solve the question of who could provide such minutes on a wing with Sidney Crosby or Malkin.

This could be an issue anyway if Hornqvist continues to play on a third line as he has at times throughout this season.

Also, there is a theory that Bjugstad has been acquired to eventually become Crosby’s right wing. If that works, great. But then what happens at third-line center? Jared McCann better be more than what he was at Florida, or the coaching staff finally needs to trust Teddy Blueger.

If Zach Aston-Reese can return from injury and perform at the level that he was before he got hurt, that’ll mitigate some of these concerns. Regardless of the specifics, head coach Mike Sullivan insists he’s comfortable with Rutherford’s assertion that the forward unit can get the job done.

“I’m comfortable with our group,” Sullivan said Tuesday morning before the defeat. “From my standpoint, I believe we have a good hockey team.

“We have as much versatility in that regard as any team in the league. We have a lot of natural centers in our lineup. It’s easier to move from the center to the wing position. Guys that can play the right side. Guys that can play the left side. We’ve got a lot of flexibility in our lineup right now.”

Sullivan may be less convinced after losing to the Hurricanes, but he could be onto something.

The Penguins have long been blessed with good players up front. But they’ve sometimes had trouble with wingers who were essentially locked on one side of the ice. Now, Rust’s game has matured to the point where he can play both sides. Dominik Simon and Jake Guentzel also can go to either side.

McCann is said to have the ability to play all three spots, as is the case with the likes of Matt Cullen, Guentzel and Simon. And Bjugstad may be the wild card of the bunch.

For their part, the current forwards seemed to appreciate the vote of confidence from Rutherford and Sullivan.

“Any time you hear that, you feel as a group of wingers that you are doing a fairly good job,” Rust said prior to Tuesday’s face off. “Now we need to go out there and prove that’s the case.”

Simon echoed that sentiment.

“It’s always great when you see trust,” he said. “Then you want to give it back.”

If Simon and his fellow wingers can “give back that trust” for the next 19 days better than they did Tuesday, Rutherford may finally be willing to hold onto that first-round pick.

For a change.

Tim Benz is a Tribune-Review staff writer. You can contact Tim at tbenz@tribweb.com or via Twitter @TimBenzPGH. All tweets could be reposted. All emails are subject to publication unless specified otherwise.

Tim Benz is a Tribune-Review staff writer. You can contact Tim at tbenz@tribweb.com or via Twitter. All tweets could be reposted. All emails are subject to publication unless specified otherwise.

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