Nick Bonino and Eric Fehr
When the Penguins acquired Phil Kessel on July 1, it was more than a move designed to ease the burden on Sidney Crosby’s and Evgeni Malkin’s shoulders. It also carried the implication that general manager Jim Rutherford had every intention of reshaping a disappointing roster.
The second and third large dominoes in the Penguins’ offseason fell Tuesday, when Rutherford shipped center Brandon Sutter -- a free agent after this upcoming season -- and a third round pick to Vancouver for forward Nick Bonino, defenseman Adam Clendening and a second round pick.
Moments later, Rutherford officially signed former Capitals forward Eric Fehr to a three-year deal with an average cap hit of $2 million.
In a span of just a few minutes, the Penguins’ added two top nine forwards for just $600,000 more than they were paying Sutter. And while Sutter is highly praised around the league for his shot, his demeanor and his defensive abilities, the 26-year-old center was likely going to be priced out of the Penguins’ range in free agency.
“He was one year away from being an unrestricted free agent,” Rutherford said, “And I felt with this opportunity it was a chance to get something for him in Nick Bonino and Adam Clendending.”
But Rutherford didn’t just swap Sutter for cap relief. Bonino, 27, has 37 goals and 88 points in his last two seasons. The 29-year-old Fehr has 32 goals and 64 points in his last two years. Both Fehr and Bonino can play center and wing, and do so at a cheaper cost than Sutter.
“When you look at the structure of our salaries and our cap, it’s important to get those bottom six cap hits in better shape,” Rutherford said. “That’s what we were able to do with these two deals.”
Ultimately, Bonino and Fehr are both better, cheaper versions of Sutter, if slightly older. They can kill penalties. They can handle faceoffs -- Fehr, a recently converted winger, is already a better faceoff man than Sutter. They produce more often in 5-on-5 play and have better possession stats. And their flexibility will allow the Penguins to work a youngster or two into the lineup, especially early on as Fehr heals from offseason elbow surgery.
The Penguins got better up the middle, more versatile, more dynamic and more cost efficient. There are still issues, including the cap hits for Chris Kunitz and Rob Scuderi plus a youthful defense that now includes the 22-year-old Clendening as a depth option.
But those can be monitored throughout the season. For now, the Penguins look much more like a Cup contender than they did a month ago.