Matt Cullen had 16 goals and 16 assists last year.
It may seem like yesterday, but the Penguins are already more than six weeks removed from winning the Stanley Cup. That means the business of defending their hardware isn’t far removed from becoming part of their day-to-day routine.
While today might be filled with taking the trophy down water slides, as former goalie Jeff Zatkoff did during his celebration last week, or posing for photos with the cup and a 1936 Rolls-Royce that belonged to Edward Stanley (son of Frederick Stanley, a former Governor General of Canada who the Cup is named for) like once and possibly future forward Matt Cullen will be doing on Saturday, they and all players will turn their focus to getting back on ice.
General manager Jim Rutherford already is hard at work, as he and his staff have had to find ways to put the finishing touches on their roster. Here’s hoping that the Midas touch he displayed in turning even the most under the radar moves to gold during the 15-16 campaign carries over.
His work is a bit easier than it was when he took over for Ray Shero a little over two years ago, but he’s looking for ways to make the team better. Much of his championship roster is returning, but there still is a hole on the fourth line and some questions in the top six.
“I got a head start. I have a good group of players,” Rutherford said after winning the league’s executive of the year award in June. “I don’t have cap issues. I’ll be able to bring back mostly the same players. One of the things that got us to win the Cup is that we have a lot of character players.”
Some would disagree with his assessment about the salary cap.
His team is currently sitting approximately $3 million above the $73-million ceiling that the league and player’s association agreed upon in June and they still have a $1.4 million dollar contract offer sitting on the table for Cullen, according to generalfanager.com.
If the 39-year-old puts pen to paper the Penguins’ total overage will leap to approximately $4.5 million which will require some manipulation to get cap compliant. Rutherford is hoping to get an answer from Cullen in the near future. He already has made known his desire to play another season, but the delay stems from the fact that he is drawn toward the Minnesota Wild and a chance to finish his career in his hometown.
Any manipulation or maneuvering to get cap compliant will take place a bit closer to the season and with possible player movement between now and then, we’ll focus on the work that Rutherford already has done and what his lineup might look like if the season began today.
Rutherford’s most impressive move of the summer might have been getting defenseman Justin Schultz to come back on the cheap, while at the same time allowing defenseman Ben Lovejoy to walk away.
Schultz was offered more money elsewhere, but inked a deal that will pay him $1.4 million dollars for the upcoming season, which is a significant drop from the $3.9 million dollars he made last season.
“I think it’s a good fit for me,” he said. “I felt like I played well when I came to Pittsburgh and the organization’s been great for me. I love the coaches, my teammates, everything. I love the city. It’s just been a great experience and I couldn’t be more excited to go back there.”
The pre-Rutherford Penguins might have overpaid Lovejoy, a valuable locker room presence coming off of the playoff run of his life, and allowed Schultz to walk. They did it right and now have a blue line that pretty much mirrors the one that helped them win their fourth cup.
Some critics might say that Lovejoy was as valuable as anyone in helping them win, but when you consider his career output, his age and the fact that his roster spot will go to the versatile Trevor Daley, the argument is moot.
He’ll have a returning defensive corps that features Kris Letang, Olli Maatta, Brian Dumoulin, Ian Cole, Schultz and Daley, with Derrick Pouliot being the extra.
There has got to be at least some concern that Bryan Rust and Conor Sheary are going to be able to perform at the level they reached during the playoffs. Each player shouldered a heavy load while skating with Evgeni Malkin and Sidney Crosby respectively, but as of today they’ll maintain those roles come September.
That means that the top two lines will remain static and feature Sheary, Crosby and Patric Hornqvist along with Chris Kunitz, Malkin, and Rust. The third line again is going to be the HBK unit featuring Carl Hagelin, Nick Bonino and Phil Kessel, while the fourth line could see Eric Fehr and Tom Kuhnhackl skating with Oskar Sundqvist.
Sundqvist is the main reason it might be best to give Cullen a deadline and pull his offer. He’s a luxury they might not need. Sundqvist has grown each and every year that he’s been in the organization and is likely ready to shoulder the load as the team’s fourth line center.
Based on Rutherford’s past faith in organizational depth, it wouldn’t be shocking to see him go that direction. It’s worth noting that Sundqvist can play both center and wing, which would allow him to be as mobile in the lineup as Cullen was last season.
They also will have Scott Wilson coming back, who showed off his skill by scoring four goals during one five-game stretch in February. He could be an option in the top six if one of the other kids falters.
Rutherford is in great shape at the NHL level, which allowed him to focus on depth signings during free agency. He brought back defensemen Steve Oleksey and David Warsofsky, who the team lost via waivers mid-season. He also added defensemen Stuart Percy, Cameron Gaunce, Chad Ruhwedel and re-signed forward Tom Sestito.
His work is far from done, but with a banner raising ceremony and an opening night clash with the Washington Capitals sitting just 77 days away, Rutherford has his Penguins ready to march.