The Penguins landed the biggest name available just before the NHL trade deadline, adding 2012 league MVP, 2009 playoff MVP and two-time scoring champion Evgeni Malkin to their roster before hosting the Winnipeg Jets Saturday.
The return of the Penguins’ own injured forwards – Malkin and Nick Bonino on Saturday and, perhaps, Beau Bennett soon – figures to provide the biggest boost to their cause down the stretch. But, with neither Ben Lovejoy or Ian Cole making a convincing case to claim the No. 6 defenseman spot, compounded by a long-term injury to Lovejoy earlier in the week, GM Jim Rutherford was transparent about his hopes of bolstering his blueline.
So, while the Penguins dispatched the Winnipeg Jets, 4-1, on CONSOL Energy Center ice, Rutherford was working the phones to finalize a deal with Edmonton GM Peter Chiarelli, acquiring defenseman Justin Schultz for a third-round pick in this summer’s entry draft.
Critically for the cap-strapped Penguins, the Oilers retained half of Schultz’s $3.9M salary. The 25-year-old British Columbia native will be a restricted free agent this summer, and Rutherford said the Penguins’ intention is to “retain his rights for at least one more year and we’ll see how the fit is.”
Schultz scored just 10 points in 45 games and was -22 for the Oilers this season, but the Penguins are betting a change in scenery can help him deliver on the potential that made him a second-round pick of the Anaheim Ducks in 2008, then prompted a bidding war for his services in 2012 when he left the University of Wisconsin as an unsigned free agent.
“He’s still a pretty young guy,” Rutherford said. “There’s some things he has to work on in his game – very good on the offensive side, still needs some work on the defensive side. We think a change of scenery for him is going to be good.”
Similar changes of scenery have been highly successful for recent acquisitions Trevor Daley, a frequent healthy scratch in Chicago, and Carl Hagelin, who struggled this year with the Ducks. Both have contributed significantly to the Penguins’ speed game under head coach Mike Sullivan, where Schultz should be a natural fit.
“Our approach was to go with more speed, more of a transition game from our back end. This is a player that’s going to be able to help that,” Rutherford said. “The [Los Angeles] Kings won [the Stanley Cup] with a more physical game for a few years, and the [Chicago] Blackhawks won with a more speed team and skill. You can do it either way. You just have to have all of the breaks and you have to be good enough to do it.”
Acquiring a player with Schultz’s upside without moving a roster player or prospect was important, said Rutherford, who’s had plenty of opportunity to see the organization’s AHL talent firsthand over the past few months.
“When you have injuries, there’s good and bad to it, but the good is that we got to see some of the young guys that we believed in come in here and play. A lot of teams have been asking for our young guys, and that’s one thing I really wanted to stay away from. So the fact that we could use a draft pick – which will be another young guy someday, but we don’t even know who he is or how he’ll be – I’m pleased we could make a deal and still keep the guys we’ve got.”
True to his word, Rutherford kept his roster largely intact as of Monday’s 3 p.m. trade deadline. The Penguins’ only deals were sending Russian forward Sergei Plotnikov down the hall to the visiting Arizona Coyotes’ dressing room, in exchange for German forward Matthias Plachta and a conditional seventh-round pick in 2017, and a minor-league swap that sent forward Matia Marcantuoni to Arizona and brought back a former Penguin in center Dustin Jeffrey – currently 10th in the AHL in scoring – and two ECHL prospects.
Last week, Rutherford suggested on a radio show that Plotnikov, who bought himself out of his KHL contract to come to the NHL this season, had been unhappy with his usage in Pittsburgh and considered returning to Russia, earning him a near-permanent seat in the press box under Sullivan.
“We wanted to clear up the Plotnikov [situation], give him a chance to go somewhere and play [because] he wasn’t going to play here, and also add some depth at center,” Rutherford said, adding that the Penguins’ moves overall were designed to provide “a little insurance and depth.”
“Just another option for the coach,” he said. “We’re going to play a lot of games in March. Hopefully, we’re going to play a lot of games right through June, and you need a lot of players. There’ll be enough time for everybody.”