NHL.com is sitting down with newsmakers for interviews leading up to the 2019 NHL Trade Deadline on Feb. 25. Today, Pittsburgh Penguins general manager Jim Rutherford talks about the lack of pressure to make any more significant moves, the impact of newcomers Nick Bjugstad and Jared McCann, and why he thinks this roster, as it stands, could be poised for a deep run in the Stanley Cup Playoffs.
The Pittsburgh Penguins roster is strong enough to make a legitimate Stanley Cup run if Evgeni Malkin and Justin Schultz successfully heal from their respective injuries, general manager Jim Rutherford said.
Malkin, the 32-year-old center who provides a lethal one-two punch with Sidney Crosby up the middle, has missed the past four games with an upper-body injury. Schultz, a 28-year-old first-pair defenseman, has been out since fracturing his left leg in the fourth game of the season against the Montreal Canadiens on Oct. 13.
"I hope we don't have to do anything else, but we'll have a better idea when Malkin and Schultz get back into the lineup," Rutherford said when asked if he would make any more moves before the 2019 NHL Trade Deadline on Feb. 25 at 3 p.m. ET. "As long as our team is playing the right way and at a high level, I don't feel pressure to do anything on trade deadline day.
"I'm not saying I won't do anything. But I feel the team we have, as long as it's healthy and playing the way we're capable of, can contend for the Stanley Cup."
Malkin, Schultz, goalie Matt Murray (upper body) and forward Zach Aston-Reese (hand) all accompanied the Penguins on their three-game road trip, but none played in their 3-2 overtime loss to the Florida Panthers on Thursday. Coach Mike Sullivan said earlier in the day that Schultz and Murray are closer to returning than Malkin and Aston-Reese.
Video: CAR@PIT: Murray dives to stop Wallmark's shot
One of the Pittsburgh goals came forward Jared McCann, who was acquired, along with forward Nick Bjugstad from the Panthers in a trade for forwards Derick Brassard and Riley Sheahan on Feb. 1. The Panthers also received the Penguins' second- and fourth-round picks in the 2019 NHL Draft, and a fourth-round pick in the 2019 draft previously acquired from the Minnesota Wild.
McCann has given a boost to the penalty kill and scored shorthanded against the Panthers. The 22-year-old had scored Florida's only shorthanded goal this season prior to the trade.
Bjugstad, a 26-year-old who had been filling Malkin's spot as second-line center, showed his versatility against the Panthers by playing on the wing with Sidney Crosby and had a handful of good scoring chances.
Rutherford said there are a number of positives in making a deal almost a month before the deadline.
"The biggest advantage is, you get to see your team with the new players," he said. "That gives you an idea as to if you need to make another move at the deadline.
"Some players make the adjustment and fit in with the team immediately. The majority of players, however, take a little bit longer. The longer you have the team together, the more time players have to make that adjustment."
The Penguins (28-19-7) hold the second wild card into the Stanley Cup Playoffs from the Eastern Conference. They are tied with the Columbus Blue Jackets for third in points in the Metropolitan Division.
With 28 games remaining on the Penguins schedule, Rutherford addressed a number of issues with NHL.com.
On the additions of Bjugstad and McCann
"I've been relatively (impressed) with both players. Small body of work, but we got them for the overall body of work. With Malkin being out, we got them at a key time. Nick's gone right in there and played well, and Jared as well. Jared is younger and hasn't been in the League as long, but they're both good players who can help the Penguins."
On how getting Malkin and Schultz back is like making trades without giving anything up
"Getting Schultz back especially. He hasn't played many games for us. The amount of time he's been out, he'll have to shake off some rust and get back into the rhythm of the game."
Video: PIT@ANA: Malkin buries chance from the slot
On the keys to his team's 18-9-2 record since Dec. 1
"Our team became more focused. The nights we're winning and beating contending teams, we're reverting back to playing the right way. We're not cheating. It's an overall team effort. Steady goaltending too, from Matt Murray and Casey DeSmith.
On how the Penguins finally are starting to recover from the fatigue of the grueling schedule that comes with winning the Stanley Cup in back-to-back years (2016 and 2017)
"I do buy into that. People that analyze our team, for the most part, none of those people have been in the situation these players have been in. It's just been a lot of high-pressure hockey the past three years. And I do believe that the nights where we all get frustrated because of the effort we put in is because of that. It takes a long time to get through it and get your batteries charged.
"It's easy to say: "Oh they were knocked out in the second round last year (by the Washington Capitals) and have had more time to rest. But it's both mental and physical. And it shows with our team. The teams at the bottom of the standings, we haven't done as well against. We just haven't played as hard against those teams. And when we play the top teams, we come with 100 percent and we do better. So all the signs are there for the ability of this team. Now it's just a matter of shifting into gear and playing the game the right way and taking it into the playoffs and taking a run from there."
On why he still considers Sidney Crosby to be the best all-around player in the NHL
"I've been around him a few years now, and he never fails to impress me. It's hard to put in words what he does. You just say he's one of the great leaders, he's humble, he takes his success in stride. He treats people extremely well, both in the organization and on the team.
Video: PIT@TOR: Crosby blasts one-timer for PPG
"I always notice that when a person is successful, people wait for the guy to fall off. I think that's why people always ask, 'Is this the time, is this the time?' I can tell you [that time] is a long way away. Because when people talk about the best player in the game, all they look at is points. There's no player in our game that can play the way Sidney Crosby does at both ends of the rink. He's the most complete two-way player in the League. Has been for years, and will be for years. But with that being said, I can never find the right words to express what I see from him on a day-to-day basis. It's one of the things that made my job worthwhile when I came to Pittsburgh. I love watching him practice, I love watching him play, I love the watching the way he treats people."