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Rutherford's series of trades puts stamp on Penguins

by Wes Crosby

PITTSBURGH -- These are Jim Rutherford's Pittsburgh Penguins.

Through nine months with Rutherford as their general manager, the Penguins are nearly unrecognizable beyond their core, which remains the same as it has been during any season in recent memory. Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin remain the top two centers, Kris Letang continues his role as the standout defenseman and Marc-Andre Fleury calls the crease at Consol Energy Center home.

Not much else is the same. Under Rutherford, the Penguins have added forwards David Perron, Patric Hornqvist, Nick Spaling, Blake Comeau Steve Downie, Daniel Winnik and Maxim Lapierre, defensemen Christian Ehrhoff, Ian Cole and Ben Lovejoy, and goalie Thomas Greiss.

"We feel we've strengthened our defense after going through the process of our forwards, getting more balance and depth up front," Rutherford said. "So this is our team."

Rutherford's vision is clear. He felt Pittsburgh's forward lines were too top-heavy last season. He began to rectify that in his first two months as general manager when he traded for Hornqvist and Spaling days before signing Comeau and Downie, who have each become mainstays at varying positions throughout the Penguins four lines.

A complete overhaul had begun, but did not reach its apex until Jan. 2, when Pittsburgh acquired Perron from the Edmonton Oilers for forward Rob Klinkhammer, who Rutherford traded for less than a month earlier, and a first-round pick in the 2015 NHL Draft.

Perron has scored 10 goals in 24 games with the Penguins while playing alongside Crosby, doubling his total in 38 games with Edmonton.

"It gets a little trickier now," Rutherford said following the Perron trade. "We can still make moves, but any future moves we make, we would have to take somebody out of our lineup, and I like what the guys have done to this point. Everybody, in different ways, has contributed to where we are. So we'll just watch the team to see what the needs are, and if we feel we still have needs, we have lots of time to still add."

Pittsburgh made four additional trades.

Rutherford brought in Lapierre, now serving as the fourth-line center, for forward Marcel Goc less than an hour after the Penguins' 5-3 win against the Winnipeg Jets on Jan. 27. He made his third forward trade in less than two months when third-line wing Daniel Winnik left the Toronto Maple Leafs on Feb. 25 for forward Zach Sill, a fourth-round draft pick in 2015 and a second-round pick in 2016.

Rutherford had formed the bottom-six he wanted, one with Brandon Sutter and Lapierre centering with wings Spaling, Winnik, Downie, Craig Adams and Beau Bennett cycling. But he felt there remained room for improvement.

The Penguins, in Rutherford's opinion, lacked defensive experience lost when Brooks Orpik and Matt Niskanen each signed with the Washington Capitals on July 1. With young defensemen Olli Maatta, Derrick Pouliot, Scott Harrington and Brian Dumoulin firmly placed into Pittsburgh's future, Rutherford felt comfortable with moving two young defensemen to gain the experience needed in the Stanley Cup Playoffs.

Pittsburgh traded defenseman Robert Bortuzzo, 25, and a 2016 seventh-round draft pick to the St. Louis Blues for Cole before reacquiring Lovejoy, 31, from the Anaheim Ducks for defenseman Simon Despres, 23, before the 2015 NHL Trade Deadline.

"If you really back this up and go back to July and you look at what free agency did to this team, we lost Orpik and Niskanen and those are two players we could not fit within our cap," Rutherford said. "They went for the big payday and so the team lost a couple of good, experienced defensemen that are really hard to replace. In the meantime, we got Ehrhoff. We started with some younger players that have done fairly well, but we just felt to have a good run in the playoffs, we needed more experience and that's why we made these two deals."

Lovejoy previously played for the Penguins from 2008-13, before former Penguins general manager Ray Shero traded him to Anaheim on Feb. 6, 2013 for a fifth-round pick in the 2014 draft. In 98 games with Pittsburgh, he scored 25 points and four goals.

Lovejoy scored six goals and 39 points in 150 regular-season games with the Ducks. He scored two playoff goals, the only two of his career, during last postseason. Despres has not scored a point in six career playoff games.

"We had a very, very long meeting this morning and this afternoon because most of these people were here when Ben was here before," Rutherford said. "He was a young guy, still feeling his way in the League and the Penguins at that point in time had a lot of defensemen, so they could afford to move him. In the meantime, since he's gone to Anaheim, he's really blossomed. He's developed into a very solid, consistent defender. So our guys felt very strong about reacquiring this player."

Despres, thought to have the potential to become an explosive NHL defenseman, had struggled to keep a spot in Pittsburgh's lineup through three seasons under former coach Dan Bylsma. He played no more than 34 games in any one of those seasons, while routinely being sent down to Pittsburgh's American Hockey League affiliate, the Wilkes-Barre-Scranton Penguins.

After 59 games played this season, Despres seemed to have found his footing with a new regime in Pittsburgh, but Rutherford said he had noticed a dip in Despres' performance in recent months.

"He took a big step forward the first couple months of the season and probably played better than anyone projected him to play," Rutherford said. "As time has gone on, we felt that his play has dropped off. Not necessarily his fault, maybe he was playing in situations he wasn't comfortable with, maybe he was playing more minutes than he could handle at this point in his career. But when we really broke it down, if we didn't have the number of young defensemen we have, then this would've been a difficult deal for us to make."

The trade deadline has passed. Rutherford sought to bring depth and experience to the Penguins and believes he has. He also believes his team has the ability to avoid the playoff struggles that have haunted Pittsburgh for five seasons.

"The Penguins have as good a chance as any in the Eastern Conference," Rutherford said. "And as the year's gone along, we got stronger and stronger with the additions that we've made and all the adversity that we've had to deal with. Where we sit in the standings now shows what kind of team we have. For the most part, when we played those teams [in the Metropolitan Division], we didn't have a full team. Now we're starting to get up. You saw what the added depth does to our forwards in the last game we played [a 5-3 win against the Columbus Blue Jackets on March 1], and now we have added depth on defense.

"We have every bit of a chance as they do."

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