It began as a typical, quiet day in late July. But Pens general manager Jim Rutherford made some noise with two roster transactions that have changed the team’s complexion and depth.
Let’s start with the details. The two moves went “hand-in-hand.”
First came the trade with Vancouver. Pittsburgh acquired forward Nick Bonino, defenseman Adam Clendening and a 2016 second-round pick (Anaheim’s second-round selection) in exchange for Brandon Sutter and a 2016 third-round pick (compensatory pick from Buffalo for hiring head coach Dan Bylsma).
The trade freed up cap space for the second move of the day. The Pens agreed to terms with forward Eric Fehr on a three-year contract.
So let’s unpack all of this.
*The Pens have to be considered one of – if not the – deepest teams down the middle in the NHL with Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin, Bonino and Fehr. Obviously the top two guys are once-a-lifetime talents. Now the Pens can roll out a third- AND fourth-line center that have each scored 20 goals. How many teams can make that claim?
*One thing to keep in mind for Fehr is that he’s coming off of elbow surgery. His recovery time is projected to be 4-6 months. Though surgeons said he could return in 4-5 months from his June 3rd surgery, the team is remaining cautious.
“I’m going to be cautious. I wasn’t concerned with how quick he’ll get back,” Rutherford said. “We’re looking at the big picture of the whole season, not the start of the season. If it’s six months I’m OK with that as long as it’s 100 percent. Based on everything I’ve been told by the doctors, he should totally heal and be back to 100 percent.”
*The Pens are sad to see Sutter go. Rutherford, who talked glowingly of Sutter as a player and locker room presence, even joked with reporters, saying, “Believe it or not he’s one of my favorite guys and I ended up trading him twice.”
Sutter had one year remaining on his $3.3 million contract and would have been an unrestricted free agent after the season. The Pens decided to get ahead of the curve and acquire assets for him, as well as improve the team’s depth.
“I felt with this opportunity it was a chance to get somebody for him in Nick Bonino and Adam Clendening,” Rutherford said.
*In many ways Fehr and Sutter are very similar players. They’re both strong, defensive shutdown guys, can chip in offensively (both are former 20-goal scorers) and kill penalties.
Fehr is bigger than Sutter (6-foot-4, 212 pounds vs. 6-foot-3, 190 pounds), has a slightly better career points per game (.39 vs. .37) and was better in the faceoff circle last year (52% vs. 50.6%).
In addition to Fehr, the Pens have added another former 20-goal scorer in Bonino. He’s a smart, versatile player that can play throughout the lineup.
*The Pens improved their organizational depth at defense with the addition of Clendening. He’s a young prospect with good upside. Clendening, a second-round pick of Chicago in 2011, gives the Pens another capable blueliner that could make an impact on the team down the road. You can never have too many of those.
*The Pens upgraded their draft position in 2016. They swapped a third-round pick for a second-round pick. In fact, the pick they gave up was a compensatory pick from Buffalo for Bylsma’s hire. So really, the Pens turned nothing into a second-round pick.
*From a salary cap standpoint, the Pens are closer to the limit. Though they dropped Sutter’s cap hit of $3.3 million, they’ve added Bonino ($1.9 million) and Fehr ($2 million). The moves will cost the Pens $600,000 in space.
“We’re up against the cap,” Rutherford said. “We have room if we want to add another forward. We want to keep in mind that we have some young forwards coming.
“When you look at the structure of our salaries and our cap, it’s important to get those bottom-6 cap hits in better shape. That’s what we were able to do with these two deals.”
*The Pens vastly improved their forward depth. But their defensive corps will be under close watch as the season begins.
As it stands now, Kris Letang, Olli Maatta, Ian Cole, Ben Lovejoy and Rob Scuderi will be on the team’s blue line. The remaining openings will be up for grabs among young prospects like Derrick Pouliot, Brian Dumoulin, Tim Erixon and Clendening.
“I’m comfortable with (the defense) going into the season,” Rutherford said. “It’s the area we will watch the closest. I don’t think we’re in a hurry to make any changes. Hopefully, these younger guys can fall into place and do a consistent job.
“I am fully aware that at some point in time we may have to address that position.”
*Rutherford keyed in on three forwards to improve the Pens’ roster heading into this offseason: Phil Kessel; Fehr and Bonino. Each deal took time and patience, but he landed all three of them. Rutherford isn’t afraid to make bold moves to get his guys.
*In summary, the Pens traded one center for two centers, a defenseman and jumped from the third to the second round in the 2016 draft. That’s an incredible return for one day’s work. Most importantly, the Pens are better today than they were yesterday.