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Rutherford adds depth, character on free agency day

by Sam Kasan @PensInsideScoop / Pittsburgh Penguins

Penguins general manager had two men on his radar as the NHL's annual free agent market commenced at noon on Sunday.

Within the hour, he had both of them under contract.

Rutherford signed defenseman Jack Johnson and center Matt Cullen, improving the team's overall balance and depth at both the forward and defensive positions.

Johnson, who signed a five-year deal with a $3.25 million average annual value, was the bigger acquisition, both in terms of the deal (money and length), but also in terms of team need.

"We feel that we have good balance in our forwards and that we needed another defenseman to bring that balance (to the backend)," Rutherford said. "One of the things that we lacked last year was three pairings with a puck-mover on it."

Johnson can fit that mold as the puck-moving blueliner. His presence on a possible third pairing would mean the Pens would have a home-run threat on the ice at all times during a game.

"Jack is a good skater, a good puck mover," Rutherford said. "He can play both sides. He can play on either special teams. We feel very strong about this player, that he's going to improve our team."

The Pens' back-to-back Stanley Cup championships were built on team speed and a strong transition game. The crux of playing that style is having smart and capable defensemen that are able to make reads and connect with crisp breakout passes.

"When you go back to the two years we won the Cup, especially the first year, we had a terrific transition game," Rutherford said. "In that transition game you have to have defensemen that can move the puck."

Rutherford also added to the team's depth at center with Cullen, who inked a one-year deal for $650 thousand. Cullen's addition gives the team five solid centers, joining Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin, Derick Brassard and Riley Sheahan.

"It's back to what I talk about all the time, the balance and the depth," Rutherford said. "We are comfortable that (Cullen) can still help our team."

But with only four lines and five centers that means someone will have to move to wing if they are all going to get into the lineup.

"Matt can play left wing and center," Rutherford said. "So can Sheahan. We think Brassard can too. He hasn't before, but (head coach Mike Sullivan) has talked about using Brassard on the wing at different times. It gives the coaches a lot more options."

While Sunday's additions can help on the ice, perhaps they'll have a greater impact off the ice.

Following Pittsburgh's second of back-to-back championships the club was forced to lose a lot of big-time leaders, including Cullen, Nick Bonino, Chris Kunitz, Trevor Daley and Marc-Andre Fleury.

Rutherford felt that the losses of those voices inside the locker room were felt last season, and he hopes that Johnson and Cullen can help in that respect.

"We lacked some leadership last year. We lost some really key guys," Rutherford said. "We also feel that with the character of Jack Johnson and Matt Cullen going in that room that we're going to get some of that back."

Rutherford admitted that he is comfortable with the Pens' current roster taking the ice to start the season, but isn't done with trying to make moves this summer.

"I'm happy going into opening night with what we have, but I'm not going to just close the door on the trade market," he said. "It's the same as always. If someone comes along that makes sense for our team, we'll talk about it.

"I do think over the next 2-4 weeks you'll see more trades because free agency goes very fast. All the top players are gone now. Some teams missed out and I would suspect that they're going to try to fill those holes in different ways."

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