Mack: Rutherford Chases Bad Deals With Another Move

Penguins' GM Has Been Pursuing Certain Intangibles For Months

Chris Mack
February 26, 2019 - 9:30 am
Jim Rutherford

Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports

Monday's deadline deal by Jim Rutherford to acquire Vancouver Canucks' defenseman Erik Gudbranson in exchange for failing winger Tanner Pearson is, on it's face, a simple, necessary reaction to losing three of his top six blueliners in the past two weeks to injury and watching his top pairing head to the locker room at the same time Saturday night in Philadelphia.

Don't expect Gudbranson to come anywhere close to replacing Kris Letang, Brian Dumoulin, or even Olli Maatta, though. He's simply not that good. 

He's big. And strong. And mean. And nasty. And a "character guy, a team guy," as Rutherford explained to the media Monday afternoon.

He also has a league-worst Plus/Minus of -27.

And the worst Even Strength Goals For (34.4%) and Scoring Chance Percentages (38.6%) of any defenseman in the NHL this season.

So other than being 6-foot-5, able to skate backwards, and having a pulse, why exactly did Rutherford deal for Gudbranson?

Quite simply, it's because Rutherford is still chasing two awful trades he made in the past 12 months and what they did to his team both on and off the ice.

It all started at last year's deadline when the Penguins identified Derick Brassard as a must-add piece in an effort to find a third line center who could play both a 200-foot game and provide scoring punch when necessary. To get what was one of the crown jewels of the 2018 deadline, Rutherford traded anything that wasn't nailed down, including draft picks, to acquire a player that ended up as one of the more spectacular disappointments in franchise history.

Both Ryan Reaves, and to a lesser extent Ian Cole, gave the Penguins the kind of grit, toughness, and protection their stars needed. They also brought the kind of character and glue to the locker room that any great team needs. 

They were both traded in the Brassard acquisition.

The lack of Cole's stay-at-home physicality on defense then led directly to Rutherford giving a 5-year deal to Jack Johnson. 

Then, as the Penguins struggled through the first quarter of the 2018-19 season, Rutherford sought to light a proverbial fire under his team's rear end. He felt in mid-November that he had to move the underperforming Carl Hagelin despite his ability to play with familiarity in Mike Sullivan's system that prioritizes speed. Just as importantly, and detrimentally, to the Penguins' cause and Rutherford's careful chemistry formula, he moved out one of the best veteran influences in a room full of guys with multiple rings. 

Ask Hagelin's best friend, Patric Hornqvist, how he felt about losing Hagelin just 16 games into the season.

"Obviously, he (Rutherford) sent a big message to the group," said Hornqvist at the time. Hornqvist has scored just six goals in his last 27 games and none in over seven weeks despite spending more time on the power play than anyone not named Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin, Phil Kessel, or Kris Letang.

Rutherford's messages sent via trade have fallen flat, if only because the players he's brought in have fallen flat as well. And it may not be fair to exclude the positive moves Rutherford has made. To not mention his acquisition of Marcus Pettersson in exchange for failed prospect Daniel Sprong or Nick Bjugstad & Jared McCann as a part of the removal of malcontent Brassard is doing a disservice to impartially assessing what he's done.

Roll up all the notable moves over the past twelve months though, and you get Reaves, Cole, Hagelin, and Sprong out (along with a handful of draft picks) in exchange for a one-year rental of Brassard, a three-month rental of Pearson, Bjugstad, McCann, Pettersson, and Gudbranson. Not to mention an underwhelming - at least as compared to his contract - Johnson.

That sounds like a team that's no noticeably better around the edges than it was just a year ago. 

And it looks like a GM who's chasing his tail, trying to correct past mistakes and fix what may not have been broken in the first place. 

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