Rutherford’s Latest Trades Position Penguins to Play Their Game

The Pens needed more depth to solidify their status as Stanley Cup contenders. With limited resources, General Manager Jim Rutherford had to get creative — and he may have solved two problems by addressing one.

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You just knew Jim Rutherford had another move or two up his sleeve. The question: In which direction was he leaning?

True to form, Rutherford let it be known — on the presumption that injured defensemen John Marino and Brian Dumoulin would be returning sooner rather than later — that help was being sought at forward prior to Monday afternoon’s NHL trade deadline. Then Rutherford went out and acquired Evan Rodrigues, Conor Sheary and Patrick Marleau.

The defense, apparently, rests.

It had better.

Subsequent injuries to defensemen the rest of the way may be enough to derail whatever postseason run the Penguins are capable of making, but those are the type of chances the Penguins were apparently willing to take.

Even with the imminent returns of Dumoulin and Marino, the top six on the blueline are starting to look a little wobbly. Justin Schultz hasn’t been very good since his return from injury. Marcus Pettersson had a meltdown game last Sunday in Washington, D.C.; the performance was uncharacteristic, yes, but nonetheless unsettling. And Kris Letang is, at times, irresponsibly high-risk.

Waiting in reserve come April and beyond, presumably, will be the likes of Chad Ruhwedel, Juuso Riikola and Zach Trotman.

Anyone want to see any of those guys in Game 6 of the Eastern Conference Final?

Rutherford probably doesn’t, either, but maintained he couldn’t find the right fit at the right price before 3 p.m. on Monday. The Penguins’ general manager was also adamant more experience was necessary up front.

“In order for us to play our game — and it started to show here over the last couple of weeks — we were always in a position that the top three lines were probably playing a little bit more than they should,” Rutherford explained. “In trying to get their minutes down [so] that we can come and come hard shift after shift with four lines, that’s what we should be able to do now that we’ve made those changes.”

Head Coach Mike Sullivan is also a big believer in the better-defense-through-offense school of thought, or at least the better-defense-by-playing-in-the-offensive-zone approach.

“Our overall team defense, we need to be stingier, but I wouldn’t pinpoint a respective zone,” Sullivan assessed a couple of days before the deadline. “I don’t think it’s necessarily just the defensive zone. I think it’s the full sheet, the full rink.

“Our team is at its best when we’re defending up the ice with our puck pursuit and making it hard for teams to come through the neutral zone with any sort of speed or continuity. I don’t think we’ve been as good in that regard. Territory, for this team, is important. When we’re spending time in the offensive zone, whether we have the puck or we don’t, I think it’s an indication that we’re on top of our game. I don’t think we’ve controlled territory as much as we’re capable of over the last few weeks.”

If the new forwards can help do something about that, so much the better — especially for the incumbent defensemen.

Rutherford’s moves may also benefit the incumbent forwards, who may be more effective more consistently with less ice time due to the new arrivals.

That, at least, is what the Penguins are counting on.

It may or may not work out that way, but something had to be done given the gauntlet of Cup-caliber contenders in the Eastern Conference that will have to be navigated in the playoffs. So it was a gamble worth taking, particularly given that it has the potential to pay dividends at both ends.

Rutherford has done his part.

The rest is up to the Pens.

Categories: Mike Prisuta’s Sports Section, Penguins, Sports