Pittsburgh Penguins

Column | Penguins wise to use 8-1 protection list option

PITTSBURGH, PA - JUNE 14: Pittsburgh Penguins defenseman Brian Dumoulin (8) hoists the Stanley Cup in celebration during the 2017 Pittsburgh Penguins Stanley Cup Champion Victory Parade on June 14, 2017 in Pittsburgh, PA. (Photo by Jeanine Leech/Icon Sportswire)
Jeanine Leech/Icon Sportswire

It has been an afterthought for quite some time the Vegas Golden Knights would select Pittsburgh Penguins goaltender Marc-Andre Fleury in the expansion draft. Looking as if he is the best goaltender available and would be a popular figure for the new franchise, that selection makes perfect sense.

But regardless of what the rumors may say or what handshake agreement the Penguins and Golden Knights might have, the expansion draft has forced every general manager to dot their I’s and cross their T’s. Pittsburgh general manager Jim Rutherford had to do his due diligence.

And when the NHL protection lists came out Sunday, the NHL revealed Rutherford somewhat surprisingly used the eight skaters and one goaltender option rather than the other choice — seven forwards, three defensemen and a netminder. As shocking as that might be for some, it was the correct decision.

Pittsburgh won back-to-back Stanley Cups the last two years behind its star power, forward depth and goaltending. The Penguins also have elite defender Kris Letang, but he missed half of the regular season and the entire playoffs. The 2017 Penguins became the first team since the 2006 Carolina Hurricanes to win the Stanley Cup without a legit No. 1 defenseman.

PITTSBURGH, PA - MAY 21: Pittsburgh Penguins Left Wing Carl Hagelin (62) looks on during the first period. The Pittsburgh Penguins won 7-0 in Game Five of the Eastern Conference Final during the 2017 NHL Stanley Cup Playoffs against the Ottawa Senators on May 21, 2017, at PPG Paints Arena in Pittsburgh, PA. (Photo by Jeanine Leech/Icon Sportswire)

PITTSBURGH, PA – MAY 21: Pittsburgh Penguins Left Wing Carl Hagelin (62) watches play develop. (Photo by Jeanine Leech/Icon Sportswire)

While the rest of the roster made up for much of the blue line deficiencies, Pittsburgh’s defensive core collectively supplied just enough this spring to win. Surely, that wouldn’t mean Rutherford electing to protect four defensemen and leaving key contributing forwards such as Carl Hagelin and Bryan Rust exposed to the expansion draft.

But the lack of depth in the organization, pending free agents and more young forwards in Pittsburgh’s system led to this unusual decision.

The Penguins will likely lose Trevor Daley, Ron Hainsey and Mark Streit all to free agency this summer. The latter two were rentals at the trade deadline, which the return of Letang will more than make up for, but Daley was an important cog in Pittsburgh’s transformation last season and will be missed.

More than likely, Daley’s replacement will have to come via free agency because the minor league defensive cupboard for the Penguins is bare. The organization would love for former No. 8 pick Derrick Pouliot to finally come into his own next season, but that’s far from a guarantee. Besides, Pouliot is a restricted free agent and might not even be back. There’s also an outside shot Vegas could be interested in him (he will be exposed in the draft) if they are willing to take a risk on a young player with tremendous upside.

Behind Pouliot on the depth chart is Cameron Gaunce, Frank Corrado and David Warsofsky. There’s also Lukas Bengtsson and Ethan Prow, but neither have played in the NHL and don’t figure to next season.

It’s the exact opposite for Pittsburgh at forward. The Penguins have seen Rust, Conor Sheary, Jake Guentzel, Tom Kuhnhackl, and Scott Wilson come up from the AHL and make a significant impact. More forward prospects are on the way in Oskar Sundqvist, Daniel Sprong and Zach Aston-Reese.

This forced Rutherford’s hand. Letang, Olli Maatta and Justin Schultz were obvious choices to protect, but it was a toss-up whether the Penguins would protect Brian Dumoulin or Hagelin, Rust and another forward. Pittsburgh’s lack of defensive depth made it essential Dumoulin was the choice.

The Penguins can’t afford to lose Daley, Hainsey, Streit and Dumoulin. If that happened and Letang sustained another serious injury next season, imagine where Pittsburgh would be.

Although Rutherford had to go this route, this decision also speaks volumes about the confidence Pittsburgh has in Dumoulin. The 26-year-old is a restricted free agent, so just like Schultz, he needs a new deal. The fact the Penguins protected both says they expect deals to be reached. Not only that, but it’s expected that both defensemen receive long-term deals, as Pittsburgh figures them to be major parts of the team’s future.

Admittedly, losing Rust or Hagelin would not be good either. Both have proven to be difference-makers in the Pittsburgh lineup, using their speed and work ethic to create offense. But they are simply more easily replaced right now for the Penguins than Dumoulin.

Fortunately for Pittsburgh, it doesn’t appear as if they will have to replace either Rust or Hagelin. Fleury waiving his no-movement clause not only possibly saved the Penguins’ 2016-17 season, but it increases their chances of three-peating. His willingness to accept a move to Vegas prevents Pittsburgh from needing to buy him out and losing another player to expansion. More than likely, that said player would have been Rust or Hagelin.

But just in case Vegas changes its mind and doesn’t select Fleury, Rutherford had to protect his shallow defensive depth from expansion.


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