A year ago, I couldn’t have possibly seen this coming.
Heck, even a few months ago…
But lately, all I can seem to do is send compliments Jim Rutherford’s way when talking about the Penguins and the makeup of their roster.
It happened again Monday, when it was announced that Bryan Rust, Scott Wilson and Tom Kuhnhackl were each signed to two-year contract extensions. These three, along with other moves and acquisitions the Penguins have made since firing former head coach Mike Johnston, have seemingly all been a perfect fit.
Let’s take a look…
First, it all starts with promoting Mike Sullivan to head coach of the Pittsburgh Penguins from Wilkes-Barre/Scranton of the AHL. Sullivan arrived, and so did the reemergence of the Penguins identity: a fast-paced, dangerous offensive hockey team. The Pens have clearly played a better brand of hockey ever since the coaching change was made. There was an awkward transition period where they lost Sullivan’s first four games, but since that point the difference has been clear and positive.
Just days after firing Johnston, Rutherford traded aging defenseman Rob Scuderi to Chicago for Trevor Daley. This deal was made months ago, and I’m still trying to find someone to explain to me how GMJR pulled it off. Scuderi had struggled mightily over the past two seasons, and he was dealt for a speedy, elusive, dangerous offensive-minded defenseman in Daley.
Daley has been a perfect fit. Scuderi has since cleared waivers to the minors.
Again, I have no clue how this deal happened (but I sure am happy).
About a month later, in mid-January, Rutherford was at it again, dealing another struggling player in David Perron for a speedy, two-way winger in Carl Hagelin. Unlike the first trade, this deal has worked out well for both teams. Perron wasn’t producing in Pittsburgh, but he has found new life in Anaheim. Hagelin wasn’t producing in Anaheim, and he has found new life in Pittsburgh alongside Evgeni Malkin and Phil Kessel.
The Hagelin deal brought even more speed to the Penguins’ attack — a perfect fit for how Sullivan has the Penguins playing.
Then just days before the trade deadline, Rutherford brought in another quick, mobile, puck-moving defenseman in Justin Schultz for a third-round pick to Edmonton. In just a few games since arriving in Pittsburgh, Schultz looks like he’s giving the Penguins much more than most teams get from a bottom-pairing defenseman.
Schultz gets the puck on net with regularity and has even started seeing top-unit power play time in the wake of Evgeni Malkin’s injury. He has been a perfect fit and a clear upgrade over Ben Lovejoy on the bottom pairing.
All the while, over the course of three months or so where Rutherford was making these moves, Sullivan and his GM brought some of their top players up from the AHL to see if they could give the Penguins a shot of life in the NHL.
Again… It has been a perfect fit.
Rust, Wilson and Kuhnhackl, along with others like Connor Sheary, Kevin Porter and Derrick Pouliot, have fit in and provided Pittsburgh with speed and energy in places it has been desperately needed.
All of a sudden, the Penguins have a bottom-six that can produce offensively. Look no further than Sunday afternoon, when Sheary scored twice in the absence of Malkin to give Pittsburgh a huge road win against the New York Rangers.
Kuhnhackl, Rust and Wilson have been consistent night in and night out with their energy, and their forecheck is something that gives teams fits. In a seven-game series, I really think what they bring could be a game-changer. The more you can wear down an opponent, the better off you’ll be in the playoffs.
And for their efforts, Rutherford has locked them up for the next two years at a price that is extremely affordable for the potential benefit they provide to this team.
A roster that just a year ago looked to be in such disarray is now deep and productive, and a lot of that talent is going to be around for the near future. Rutherford deserves a lot of credit for that.
Right now, it looks like a perfect fit.