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Pens' Defense Gets Skill, Experience Upgrade

by Sam Kasan / Pittsburgh Penguins

The Pens run a system built on puck possession and swift-moving defensemen.

And general manager Jim Rutherford has compiled a roster that will match that system.

On the NHL’s trade deadline day, Pittsburgh made two moves, acquiring puck-moving, fleet-footed veteran defensemen Ian Cole from St. Louis and former Pens blueliner Ben Lovejoy from Anaheim.

“When we looked at our defense, despite the fact that it’s played pretty well at this point, we were concerned about the experience,” Rutherford said. “We were looking to upgrade, add more of a veteran presence.

“We felt to have a good run in the playoffs we needed more experience and that’s why we made these two deals.”

In exchange, the Pens sent two physical blueliners out of town with Robert Bortuzzo, and a 2016 seventh-round pick, heading to the Blues and Simon Despres to the Ducks.

“Both guys we got are capable hitters,” Rutherford said. “Clearly, the two guys we traded were more aggressive on the fighting side than the two guys we got back. But as we go along, I don’t believe down the stretch in the regular season there will be that many games, maybe a few, that we’ll need that. We’ll have to do it as a team unit, team toughness. But when you get to the playoffs it’s not as useful.”

The Pens’ system is built around a fast and aggressive attack. The foundation of that attack are defensemen that can move the puck quickly out of their zone and have the speed to join the rush (or lead the rush, a la Kris Letang) in transition.

Cole, 26, has the pedigree of a first-round pick, having been selected by St. Louis 18th overall at the 2007 NHL Draft. He has size – standing at 6-foot-1, 219 pounds – and good instincts.

“He brings good depth to our blue line,” Rutherford said. “He’s had a very good year this year and we hope that continues here.”

Lovejoy, 31, began his NHL career with the Pens from 2008-13. Lovejoy spent the last two-plus seasons with Anaheim and was on the Ducks’ top D-pairing with Cam Fowler.

“We had a very, very long meeting this morning and this afternoon (regarding Lovejoy),” Rutherford said. “Most of (the Penguins’ staff) were here when Ben was here before. He was a young guy still feeling his way in the league.

“Since he’s gone to Anaheim he’s really blossomed. He’s really developed into a solid, consistent defender. Our guys felt very strong about reacquiring this player.”

Last week Rutherford said the Pens might be done dealing unless more defensemen came onto the market. He had been in contact regarding both Cole and Lovejoy, but neither was on the block. That changed over the weekend and the deals came together today.

Over the previous few months leading up to the deadline Rutherford brought in forwards David Perron, Maxim Lapierre and Daniel Winnik.

Since taking over last summer as GM, Rutherford has given the Pens an overhaul that was completed at 3 p.m. today. Finally, this is the team the Pens will field in the postseason.

“The Penguins have as good a chance as any team in the Eastern Conference,” Rutherford said. “As the year went a long we got stronger and stronger with the additions that we’ve made and all the adversity that we had to deal with.

“We feel we’ve strengthened our defense after going through the process of the forwards, getting more balance up front. So this is our team.”

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