When the Pittsburgh Penguins hired Jim Rutherford in June of 2014, it raised a lot of red flags. Widely considered an old-school GM, the move seemed illogical for a variety of reasons. His Carolina Hurricanes struggled with the salary cap, winning the Stanley Cup in 2005-06 but missing the playoffs in all but one season since then.
He hasn’t been in charge in Raleigh since April of 2014, but the organization is still struggling under the weight of some of the awful contracts he handed out. After working with the Hurricanes/Hartford Whalers franchise for 20 years, he was replaced by Ron Francis. Then the Penguins–for whatever reason–came calling, and Rutherford has been laying waste to the team’s cap situation since.
He’s made numerous questionable moves since taking the reins from Ray Shero, including going even more top-heavy by acquiring Phil Kessel and emptying the prospects cupboard for win now assets.
The acquisition of Carl Hagelin is another head scratcher from a manager who doesn’t seem capable of handling the finances of an NHL team.
ANA trades Carl Hagelin to PIT for David Perron and Adam Clendening.
— Bob McKenzie (@TSNBobMcKenzie) January 16, 2016
From strictly an on-the-ice standpoint, Hagelin could be a good fit in Pittsburgh. He’s a speedy wing who has scored 142 points across 309 NHL games. Anaheim plays a grinding style that Hagelin was in no way fit for. Pittsburgh approaches the game with more speed, which is the forward’s calling card.
The hangup comes when you consider the contracts that these two teams exchanged. David Perron goes to the Ducks with a $3.812 million cap hit, which is similar to Hagelin’s $4 million hit. The difference is that the former’s deal expires at the end of this year, while the latter will be locked in until the end of the 2018-19 season.
That’s significant term for a player who has seen his average points per 60 decline in each one of the last five seasons.
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Maybe Hagelin gets to Pittsburgh and turns into a 30-goal scorer while playing alongside Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin. But if Kessel isn’t on pace to crack 30 with either of those centers, why would Rutherford hope for Hagelin to even score 20 goals for the first time in his career?
David Perron always left a bit to be desired with his play with the Penguins, but at least they weren’t going to have to continue to pay him for another few years. It took Hagelin all of 43 games to wear out his welcome in Anaheim. If Darren Dreger’s report is accurate, the Ducks were open to moving him long before that.
Ducks/Pens talked about Hagelin for 2 months, but couldn't find fit. Trade came together mid week. Pitt likes his speed. Better fit in east.
— Darren Dreger (@DarrenDreger) January 16, 2016
The trade makes a ton of sense for Anaheim, even though they just traded for and re-signed Hagelin this summer. They have a handful of high-end players who will be looking for big raises this summer. With the Canadian dollar at a 13-year low, it isn’t likely that the NHL’s salary cap will go up by much at the end of this season.
So the Ducks made the smart move and cleared $4 million off of their books, essentially ear-marking it for defenseman Sami Vatanen. Which is somewhat ironic, since that’s what the Penguins should have been looking to do. Clearing a bit of money off the books to re-sign Olli Maatta this summer.
They have $1.97 million in cap space following this trade and no big contracts falling off the books this summer. Not with Perron in Anaheim now, that is. The Penguins have a handful of expiring deals with non-core players, so maybe they can find cash for Maatta there. But then they’d have to turn around and replace players like Matt Cullen and Ben Lovejoy, and that costs money.
Maybe Derrick Pouliot and Oskar Sundqvist can step in and fill those voids, but what if they can’t?
Only three forwards have longer contracts with Pittsburgh than Hagelin, and that’s Crosby, Malkin and Kessel. That makes the incoming wing part of that core group, whether Rutherford intended for that to be the case or not.
More concerning than any of this though is the fact that the GM won’t be in Pittsburgh for more than another year or so. He said as much when the team hired him in 2014.
“I would suspect my term here is two or three years.”
Rutherford is going to step down within the next two seasons, and when he does so he will have left the Penguins a broken, mishandled mess. Not just because of the Hagelin deal, but because of the cap hell he will be leaving this team in for the future. Winning in the NHL is about asset management, and the 66-year-old is in the process of tearing down his second franchise is as many decades.