Pittsburgh Penguins’ general manager Jim Rutherford made it clear that he planned on keeping busy on the first day of free agency.
He certainly kept his word.
The Penguins were among the most active of all teams yesterday, and after yesterday’s signing bonanza, there is no doubt the team will have a much different look this upcoming season.
With just under $15 million in cap space to utilize, Rutherford was given the daunting challenge of deciding how to spend limited resources in order to not only fill a roster, but upgrade it. After day one of free agency, it’s fair to say Rutherford was up to the challenge.
Though Penguin mainstays such as Brooks Orpik, Matt Niskanen, Jussi Jokinen, and Deryk Engelland will now being playing elsewhere, Rutherford wasted little time finding some viable replacements.
The first of these replacements was former Buffalo Sabres’ defenseman Christian Ehrhoff. With the signing of Ehrhoff, a versatile two-way blue liner, it was clear that the Penguins were moving on from Niskanen and Orpik, both who signed lucrative contracts with the Washington Capitals.
Not only is Ehrhoff a comparable player to Niskanen, he comes with a much more reasonable price tag. Ehrhoff signed a one year deal for $4 million, a far cry from the seven year, $40.25 million Niskanen received from the Caps. Not to mention the fact that the Caps inexplicably paid Orpik a five-year deal for $27.5 million, somehow making the Rob Scuderi deal look a little better.
Though statistically Ehrhoff struggled this past season in Buffalo, the reality is, what Sabre didn’t? I get that Niskanen played outstanding hockey for the Penguins last season, and Orpik was a Pens lifer, but I personally would take Ehrhoff over either player for next season.
Ehrhoff brings a little bit of everything to the table. He’s capable of playing on the right or left side, has a canon for a shot and has regularly logged Paul Martin-esque minutes during his career. Ehrhoff can contribute on the power play and penalty kill and does both at a high level.
Some will point to his putrid minus-27 rating in Buffalo last year, but if you watched the Sabres last year, you realize Nicklas Lidstrom himself would have struggled to do much better.
I love the Ehrhoff signing and it was one of a number of sneaky, under the radar signings that may not get headlines, but make the Penguins demonstrably better.
Next Rutherford added goalie Thomas Greiss and bottom six forward Blake Comeau.
As with the Ehrhoff signing, Rutherford found solid players at bargain prices. Greiss, who was signed a one-year, $1 million contract, is an experienced goalie who put up respectable numbers both in San Jose and Phoenix. It’s reported that Greiss is not only being brought in as an extremely capable backup, he’s been told he will be given an opportunity to challenge for the starting position.
When you compare Greiss’ numbers to Marc-Andre Fleury’s, they are very similar. Sure, the sample size is smaller, but the reality is there is not a lot of difference between the two in terms of save percentage or goals against average. Either way, unlike Jeff Zatkoff, Greiss looks to be a viable replacement for Fleury if the Pens decide that he is not capable of getting the job done.
I absolutely love the Greiss signing, especially at the price. At the very least you now have a top backup in place and a significant upgrade over Zatkoff.
You might remember Comeau from the Penguins recent playoff series win over Columbus. The former Blue Jacket is another player that gives the Penguins flexibility with their third and fourth lines. Comeau once again replaces another departed Penguin Tanner Glass.
Comeau is an upgrade over Glass, who frankly was terrible last season. Adding Comeau gives the Pens a forward who can work on the PK along with adding speed and toughness to the fourth line. Believe it or not, he has a little bit of a scoring touch also, as he scored 24 goals for the Islanders four years ago.
The last addition of note on day one was from within. Rutherford made the savvy move of resigning Marcel Goc to a one-year, $1.2 million contract, another fantastic move by Rutherford.
Though Goc spent much of his time last season with the Pens nursing an ankle injury after being acquired in a deadline deal, Goc is a terrific bottom six option. Goc fits the theme of the forwards on this roster, lots of versatility and utility. He can play center or wing, and is another outstanding penalty killer. The prospect of having him on a fourth line with Comeau and Craig Adams means a significant upgrade to one of the glaring weaknesses of last year’s team.
It’s understandable that some might wonder why Rutherford did not find a winger to play on a line with Evgeni Malkin, as was rumored to be a priority. However, the cost of finding that player simply did not work financially, and is it not time to see what former first-round pick Beau Bennett can do on a top line, at least if he can stay healthy?
Sure, players like Pascal Dupuis and Chris Kunitz are getting older, but both players are certainly capable of helping with the goal scoring load. Add Patric Hornqvist into the mix and you have another player who is capable of scoring 30-plus goals, especially on a line that includes Malkin or Sidney Crosby.
When you get right down to it, Crosby and Malkin will be expected to be the great players they are, and get paid top money to be. Upgrading the defense and bottom six had to be a priority for Rutherford, and that’s exactly what he did. You win in the playoffs by having depth and solid contributions throughout the lineup, and the Penguins look like they have improved in these areas considerably.
Other moves are still possible. With the Pens still needing to fill in the rest of their roster, and specifically, sign Brandon Sutter and Simon Despres, money will be very tight. It will be interesting to see how Rutherford will go about walking the salary cap tightrope, especially with players like Fleury and Martin in the last years of their contracts.
Either way, looking around the league at what some of the other teams in the NHL did, or did not do in day one of free agency, I have to say Rutherford did an outstanding job making the Penguins better.
There’s still work to do obviously, but it is a promising start.