Monday, July 03, 2017

Penguins have been quiet in free agency, and that's OK for now

By Mark Madden
July 3, 2017

Image result for jim rutherford june 2017
Jim Rutherford at the 2017 NHL Draft

Some are twitchy because the Penguins haven’t yet traded for a third-line center, or signed one in free agency.
But it’s no bother, because the Penguins don’t play tomorrow. Or the next day.
Other NHL teams have real issues to deal with, and many aren’t distinguishing themselves. Toronto, for example, augmented its youth movement with three old men, giving a three-year deal to a 37-year-old that’s never won a Stanley Cup. What can Patrick Marleau possibly teach Auston Matthews?
The Penguins, meantime, will return every key player from a team that just won a second straight Stanley Cup.
If the Penguins fail to collect a third consecutive championship, it won’t be because they lost Nick Bonino, Trevor Daley, Ron Hainsey or Chris Kunitz in free agency. Those are good players, but eminently disposable.
Depth talent is interchangeable in a league that uses a salary cap. Emotion and loyalty (ha!) can’t enter into it. Bottom-six forwards and bottom-pair defensemen come and go.
As long as your better players are retained for the long term and keep producing, you’ve got a chance.
The Penguins will return Sidney Crosby, Kris Letang, Evgeni Malkin and Matt Murray. So, they’ve got a chance. (BTW, it remains mind-boggling that the Penguins won this year’s championship with Letang injured. Incredible.)
Fatigue is the Penguins’ biggest enemy in 2017-18. Not losing Bonino, etc.
Penguins GM Jim Rutherford has handled the off-season just fine so far.
Unless he really thinks new backup goalie Antti Niemi (a bargain at $700K) might play 40 games. If Rutherford believes that, he’s nuts.
The third-line center situation remains in play. Rutherford appears likeliest to deal from his surplus at wing, those numbers swelled by the expectations accorded Daniel Sprong (second-round pick in 2015) and Zach Aston-Reese (free-agent signing after leading NCAA hockey in scoring this past season).
But signing free-agent defenseman Matt Hunwick away from Toronto was a thought-provoking move.
Hunwick, 32, is solid. Good mobility. A workhorse, if need be: Hunwick averaged over 25 minutes per game in the playoffs. He’s an easy fit.
But he’s left-handed. While Hunwick has experience on the right side, he’s usually played on the left.
Hunwick joins Ian Cole, Brian Dumoulin and Olli Maatta as primarily left-sided defensemen on the Penguins roster.
That’s four. You dress three.
Will Hunwick play the right side, hopefully performing as well as Hainsey did when put in the same situation by the Penguins?
Or will a defenseman – perhaps Maatta – be part of Rutherford’s deal for a third-line center?
BTW, I’m against swapping Maatta. He’s a 22-year-old with sound fundamentals and two Stanley Cup rings. As for his $4.083-million cap hit through 2022, it becomes a bargain as the cap continues to rise.
Some are obsessed with the Penguins acquiring Colorado center Matt Duchene, who is reportedly on the block. Acquiring Duchene would require massive return: Some combination of Maatta, Sprong and a high draft pick.
I don’t want to pay that price, and I see no point to getting Duchene.
Duchene carries a cap hit of $6 million: Almost $2 million higher than Bonino’s cap hit with Nashville. It’s too much to pay a third-line center. Anyway, Duchene’s high-octane style doesn’t lend itself to the third line.
Duchene’s speed would certainly be a good fit, especially at wing with Crosby or Malkin. But the Penguins have enough top-six wingers.
You’re not collecting hockey cards, or building a fantasy-league roster. Duchene to Pittsburgh doesn’t make sense.
The fourth-line center spot is also vacant, unless Rutherford and coach Mike Sullivan feel that Carter Rowney can do that job full-time. I don’t.
Matt Cullen said he would either retire or play for Pittsburgh. Then he spoke with Minnesota the next day. The same thing happened after last season. It’s like a rite of summer.
Mark Madden hosts a radio show 3-6 p.m. weekdays on WXDX-FM (105.9).

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