As he considers how to improve the Penguins roster in advance of the NHL trade deadline February 29, general manager Jim Rutherford won’t be constrained by the salary cap in a meaningful way.
He might, however, be held back by an unwillingness to mortgage the team’s future.
That has been the team’s M.O. at times in the past, but the value of adding young players on cheap, entry-level contracts in coming seasons finally might be outweighing the short-term benefits of trade-deadline acquisitions.
“I haven’t heard anything at this point that would entice me to do that,” Rutherford said. “I’m going to be a little bit more cautious this year, maybe, than past years, but I wouldn’t rule out anything.”
According to generalfanager.com, the Penguins are operating with about $1.65 million of cap space. Rutherford, however, said those estimates are low and the Penguins have more than $2 million in available space.
It’s not the bonanza it might be if the Penguins did not have money tied up in players on the long-term injured list and could buy rental players whose annual salaries total $8 million, but it’s enough for Rutherford to feel he’s not wearing handcuffs.
“We have the flexibility to do something,” he said.
That doesn’t mean Rutherford is itching to part ways with draft picks or any of the team’s top-end prospects, such as defenseman Derrick Pouliot, winger Daniel Sprong and goalie Matt Murray, in exchange for veteran players with expiring contracts.
What’s more, if the Penguins make the playoffs, they won’t have a first-round pick in June’s draft because of the Phil Kessel deal with Toronto. They will have an extra second rounder thanks to the Nick Bonino deal with Vancouver, but it doesn’t sound like the additional pick is burning a hole in Rutherford’s pocket.
“We like this draft,” he said. “In past years, we’ve traded away younger players or picks. I think we’re getting a good group of young players now. Ideally, we’d like to keep both those second-round picks.”
Rutherford said he can’t have too firm a plan 11 days out from the deadline because he needs to see how things develop on the injury front.
Centers Evgeni Malkin (lower body), Bonino (upper body) and Eric Fehr (lower body) are due back in relatively short order, but Rutherford would like to get as much information about their health before committing to making moves.
“With Malkin back and with Bonino and Fehr back and the additions we’ve made and the young additions we’ve made from Wilkes-Barre, I believe this is a strong team,” he said. “But all those issues have question marks. When do those guys get back? Are they going to stay healthy?”
If the centers in question return without incident, the biggest hole on the roster probably would be at left wing.
The group of left-handed wingers who have been rumored to be available includes potential impact players like Arizona’s Mikkel Boedker and Winnipeg’s Andrew Ladd and potential depth additions like Columbus’ Scott Hartnell and Toronto’s Michael Grabner.
All season long, Rutherford said he planned to monitor his defense corps to see whether additions would be needed for the stretch run. Trading Rob Scuderi to Chicago for Trevor Daley in December has proven to be an upgrade, so the focus on that part of the roster isn’t as keen these days.
In fact, Rutherford said, the Daley deal illustrates why the Penguins might decide not to be terribly active at the deadline.
“Not many teams made moves during the season, and we did,” Rutherford said. “We made the Daley deal. We made the (Carl) Hagelin deal. We brought up a number of good young players. We’ve made a lot of moves here.
“The concern always, and you can never gauge it, is what happened to us last year. As soon as the trade deadline was over, we ran into all those injuries with defensemen. But I do believe we’re in a stronger position this year than we were last year as far as depth at all positions.”