Jim Rutherford is enjoying another off-season as a Stanley Cup-winning general manager, having helped his Penguins pull off a rare back-to-back feat.
One of the 68-year-old’s hallmarks since being hired to run this team three summers ago has been his ability to find the right fit for his lineup via swaps with other teams.
During a discussion on Pittsburgh’s 93.7 The Fan on Thursday morning, a number of trade-related topics came up for Rutherford.
A big swap had just gone down in Major League Baseball, and the GM was asked about the type of feelings with which these trades come.
“When news come out like this on a trade, it’s all new to us,” began Rutherford. “But those teams have probably been working on it for awhile. I know any time we’ve made a big trade, it’s something we’ve thought about for months. Then we work on it for a month or two until we finally make it.
“So you make it, you’re excited about getting the player or players you want, and then you start to get a little bit nervous wondering if it’s all going to work out.”
The Penguins lost Nick Bonino to free agency earlier in the month, with the forward having signed a four-year, $16.4 million contract with the Nashville Predators.
Rutherford has been examining options for that open third-line center role, and was asked about the possibility of a return to the Penguins for Jordan Staal.
Staal had been the third-line center in Pittsburgh before being acquired by Rutherford – then the general manager of the Carolina Hurricanes – in 2012.
“I can’t talk about players on other teams, but to my knowledge he’s not available,” said Rutherford.
Staal still has another six years to go on that 10-year, $60 million contract and his $6 million cap hit would be even harder to mash into that third-line center slot than would have Bonino’s at $4.1 million.
Staal also, for what it’s worth, has a no-move clause in each year of that contract.
“I continue to talk to teams about (third-line center possibilities),” said Rutherford. “In some ways, you have to be patient at this point in time. We really don’t play until October and of course if we don’t have the guy that we really like to start the season, we’ll just continue to work on it for the key time of the season – down the stretch and in the playoffs.
“There’s centers right now that I could make trades for, if I wanted to do it today. I think that there’s other guys that could become available that we have higher up on our list. So right now I continue to talk to teams, and wait until the right time comes that we can get a guy that fits into our cap for now and the projection going forward with contracts that we have to sign next year, and a guy we feel can fit that role within our room and on the ice and help us.”
The salary cap is naturally the critical piece of the puzzle for any team.
“We’re probably in around the $2 million range,” explained Rutherford specific to what the Penguins may be able to allot for that third-line center. “Now we’ve got two guys going to arbitration and we don’t know what those awards will be – that’s Dumoulin and Sheary. We have our own projections and if we’re right on our own projections, then we’re probably in around the $2 million area.”
Dumoulin’s arbitration date has been set for July 24, and Sheary’s will be August 4. The team and each player’s camp can still strike a deal on a new contract before the hearing itself begins.
Post-Gazette columnist Ron Cook is one of the hosts on 93.7, and he referred to a column he wrote this week suggesting that he believes Phil Kessel will be traded.
“It might not happen this week or this month or even this offseason,” wrote Cook. “But I believe it will happen sooner rather than later.
“Tocchet’s departure could hasten the process.”
Cook asked Rutherford where Kessel stands within the Penguins’ organization.
“Rick Tocchet did do a good job with Phil,” noted Rutherford. “Not only Phil, but other players at different times in the season where they need that one-on-one communication. Rick Tocchet did a good job.
“But that’s something that Mark Recchi also has done in the past and he will be able to assume that role. He’s done some work with Phil also in the first year Phil was here.”
Rick Tocchet left the Penguins to become the head coach of the Arizona Coyotes, signing a four-year deal.
Mark Recchi was quickly named as an assistant coach to fill Tocchet’s spot.
“Phil Kessel is an important part of the Penguins,” continued Rutherford. “I mean, he gets a lot of points, he scores big goals, he sets up big goals. The more impact players that you have like we have, the better chance you have of winning. It may not be on a regular basis, but it may come at a certain time in a series or whatnot just like it did against Ottawa. Kessel come up and got a big goal in the 1-0 game.
“He’s an important part. I don’t want to sit here and say that a certain player is not going to get traded at some point in his career – I mean, Phil already did. But that’s not something I foresee happening right now.”
One name that seems to pop up periodically in Penguins-related trade rumors is Olli Maatta, although Rutherford would neither confirm nor deny if the 22-year-old defenseman’s name has been brought up much by other general managers.
“I don’t want to get into individual names,” said Rutherford. “I talk to GMs on a regular basis, and they ask about all of our players. But it wouldn’t be right to get into any one individual’s name.”
Maatta is entering the second season of his six-year, $24.5 million contract, which carries a cap hit just shy of the $4.1 million mark.
His modified no-trade clause, which will include an eight-team no-trade list, will not kick in until the final two campaigns of that pact.