Tim Benz: Sifting through Jim Rutherford’s mixed messages about Penguins | TribLIVE.com
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Tim Benz

Penguins general manager Jim Rutherford is sure sending a lot of smoke signals.

Either that or Rome is burning.

Maybe both.

For the first time since 2006, a Penguins season ended without the team securing at least one playoff victory. And after the season ended, Rutherford said changes needed to happen.

To his credit, Rutherford made one transaction already by trading defenseman Olli Maatta to Chicago for forward Dominik Kahun.

Despite being a Maatta fan over the years, I like the move.

Rutherford admitted he attempted another trade, trying to ship Phil Kessel to the Wild. But the Penguins winger nixed the deal via his limited movement clause.

But if the trade action simply stops at Maatta moving out for a bottom-six forward, that’s hardly hitting “control-alt-delete” on the current state of the team.

So what’s next after the Maatta maneuver? Rutherford clearly wants to keep us — and the league — guessing.

The general manager made the local media rounds Monday in the wake of the trade to get Kahun. And the team floated some comments from Rutherford on their own, perhaps coincidentally.

Perhaps not.

Let’s start with the Kessel question and whether trade talks involving him are truly dead.

“I’m not going to be aggressive on a trade and have the player control where he goes because it doesn’t work out for the team when you do that,” Rutherford told Mark Madden of 105.9 the X on Monday. “If somebody calls with an idea that makes sense for him or most of our other players, I’m going to look at. But I’m not going to be aggressive and bounce from team to team and let the player control where he goes.”

OK. That’s all well and good. But if a team approaches Rutherford with a package that he likes, and it’s not one of Kessel’s preferred destinations, Kessel is still in control. The player still says “yay” or “nay.”

Does it really matter who picks up the phone and orchestrates the idea?

Rutherford then elaborated on how good of a player Kessel is, how well it could still work if Kessel stays, how much he likes him, how good of a guy he is, and how they couldn’t have won two Stanley Cup titles without him.

All that after trying to pawn him off on Minnesota for Jason Zucker.

Yeah. I’m sure all of those flowery thoughts were dancing through Rutherford’s head when Kessel said “thanks, but no thanks” to the idea of heading out to St. Paul a few weeks ago.

Then there’s Rutherford’s willingness to keep speculation open about the prospect of trading Evgeni Malkin, Kris Letang and Patric Hornqvist.

Before noon on Monday, the general manager primed that pump on 93.7 The Fan.

“I didn’t say that I was going to actively push to trade the guys that you just mentioned, but I didn’t say that I wouldn’t,” Rutherford said. “(Wayne) Gretzky was traded, one of the greatest players of all time. Sometimes, there’s certain packages that come along that you have to look at. That’s why I kept that door open.”

By 12:20 p.m., though, Pens TV released a “behind the scenes” video of the team’s scouting staff getting ready for the draft.

The video opens with Rutherford addressing his staff.

“We are coming off a season where it ended, where were very disappointed. But we did have a 100-point season. Because of that we are going to retool our team a little bit. We aren’t going to start into a rebuild. I feel that there is still an opportunity here to win a Cup.”

Trading Maatta and Kessel and perhaps Hornqvist, that’s a retool. Doing that, plus a trade of Malkin or Letang is a rebuild.

So based on that, take Letang and Malkin off the list. That won’t happen unless a team approved by those players returns an ungodly haul.

The real debate is about the level of Rutherford’s sincerity when he claims he’s waiting for teams to come to him on Kessel.

My hunch is that Rutherford can sing this song all he wants, but he’s likely investigating every avenue possible to relieve the team of Kessel’s $6.8 million against the cap. Then he’ll investigate every avenue possible to get Kessel on board to agree.

If not, he better be as good at trying to convince himself that Kessel will be content here in 2019-20 as he is at trying to convince us.

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