Pittsburgh Penguins’ GM Jim Rutherford required medical treatment April 1 for a serious case of writer’s cramp after a busy contract-signing March.
Perhaps moving away from the team’s heritage of gaudy free-agent signings, Rutherford inked forward prospects Scott Wilson, Tom Kühnhackl and Bryan Rust in a one-day paperwork frenzy March 14.
Affordable contract extensions avoided restricted free agency status for all three in the off-season.
Several other signings in the month might signal the Penguins are amending how they construct their roster, whether from a change in philosophy or from necessity.
The former GM of the Hartford Whalers/Carolina Hurricanes also signed St. Cloud State late-blooming blueliner Ethan Prow, Minnesota State-Mankato grad Teodors (Teddy) Blueger and emerging two-way force Carter Rowney to two-year NHL entry-level deals.
Signed as a free agent right after he finished a breakout senior season, puck-moving D-man Prow was a long-list Hobey Baker candidate, although the three finalists to be named U.S. college hockey's best player this season are Harvard senior forward Jimmy Vesey , Michigan freshman forward Kyle Connor and Boston College junior goalie Thatcher Demko.
Bluegers, a 21-year-old alternate captain, made the WCHA first all-star team by leading the Mavericks with 35 points and 24 assists. The Latvian native was scoreless in his first two AHL games to begin an amateur tryout contract for the rest of the season.
Carter Rowney netted a hat trick to ignite a March explosion for the Wilkes-Barre/Scranton Penguins that would lead to him being named the AHL’s player of the month:
Conversely, Rowney has just been named the CCM/AHL Player of the Month. In one torrid nine-game explosion, he racked up seven goals and 10 assists for a league-high 17 points in March to propel the AHL Penguins toward the post-season. His 21 goals, 31 assists and 52 points are pro-career personal bests, and his plus-26 rating is tops among active AHL forwards.
After leading all NCAA defensemen in 2015-16 points and assists, Prow will finish this season with Pittsburgh’s Wilkes-Barre/Scranton AHL farm club on an amateur tryout deal. The 23-year-old’s NHL contract, which begins next season, is a two-way deal (paying him less if he’s playing in the minors).
Another hint of a new strategy of prudence by Rutherford?
While Rowney, Prow and Bluegers have yet to play in an NHL game, Wilson, Rust and Kühnhackl parlayed strong AHL seasons into NHL callups and are contributing to Pittsburgh’s blazing spring streak that has erased a bumbling first half and positioned the Penguins for another post-season appearance.
Leading all AHL goal-scorers when he was promoted, Wilson has five goals and one assist in 24 games. Playing mostly on the fourth line, the 2011 seventh-round draft pick with some feistiness is currently dealing with an ankle injury.
Getting regular third-line minutes with Rust, Kühnhackl has four goals and seven assists in 37 games. A 2010 fourth-rounder, the son of legendary German player Erich Kühnhackl is solid defensively and has reached the NHL through hard work, some of it in the ECHL.
Rust has used his blazing speed and hockey IQ to register four goals and seven assists in 41 games, exactly half an NHL campaign. The 2010 third-rounder doesn’t necessarily have a lofty ceiling, but he could have a lengthy NHL career as a bottom-six contributor.
Sure, these players and other prospects – who include future blueline star Derrick Pouliot, emergent Pittsburgh goalie of the future Matt Murray, hard-working mighty mite forward Conor Sheary and defensive center Oskar Sundqvist – have been called up mostly due to injuries.
The point is that they are providing reliable depth and helping Pittsburgh win important games – a March record of 12-4, including 10-1 to close the month – while also helping the Penguins stay under the cap.
Rutherford’s recent affordable signings might be as much as admission that his team’s salary structure is top-heavy with mega cap hits as much as a realization that the just-signed/extended players can hold their own in Earth’s best ice hockey league.
Pittsburgh’s current salary-cap breakdown is revealing.
After adding Phil Kessel’s $6.8-million annual cap hit in the off-season, Rutherford still has $38 million (65 per cent of the team’s current cap space) tied up in five players (Evgeni Malkin, Sidney Crosby, Kris Letang, Kessel and Marc-Andre Fleury). Through a series of in-season transactions, Rutherford has increased Pittsburgh’s available cap space from slightly above $2 million to more than $13.5 million, 12th most in the NHL.
No core Penguins will be free agents after this season, so Pittsburgh might not be done with splashy free-agent signings after all.