Penguins trade for defenseman Jamie Oleksiak, goalie Michael Leighton
Penguins general manager Jim Rutherford likes massive defenseman Jamie Oleksiak’s potential.
He also likes what Oleksiak’s presence does for his ability to wheel and deal in the future.
That was the rationale behind a pair of moves Rutherford made Tuesday, getting Oleksiak from Dallas and sending speedy winger Josh Archibald to Arizona in deals that could be remembered as the first steps on the roster’s road to refurbishing after a rough first half of the season.
“If we were to move a defenseman going forward, I don’t get locked into having to get a defenseman back,” Rutherford said. “I have more flexibility now. If the right forward’s available, we can do it that way also.”
Rutherford will have to cool his jets for the next 10 days or so, as the NHL’s holiday roster freeze was scheduled to start at 11:59 p.m. Tuesday and run through Dec. 28. Once the league reopens for business, a move that would send out a defenseman for a forward who could provide depth scoring seems more likely than ever before.
“We’re open to different things,” Rutherford said.
Rutherford started Tuesday by sending Archibald, goalie prospect Sean Maguire and a sixth-round pick in the 2019 draft to Arizona for veteran goalie Michael Leighton and a 2019 fourth-round pick. Then, he essentially flipped that pick to Dallas for Oleksiak.
Joining Pittsburgh: Goaltender Michael Leighton and a 2019 fourth-round draft pick.
Joining Arizona: Forward Josh Archibald, goaltender Sean Maguire, and a 2019 sixth-round draft pick.
— Pittsburgh Penguins (@penguins) December 19, 2017
The 6-foot-7, 255-pound Oleksiak will be the most noticeable new addition at first. After all, he’s hard to miss.
“We just feel that 25 years old for a defenseman and 6-foot-7 with a reach like that, a change could help him and also coming to (assistant Sergei Gonchar) and our group of coaches to work with him, there’s still an upside for him,” Rutherford said.
Oleksiak is essentially a reclamation project. Taken with the 14th overall pick in the 2011 draft, he didn’t live up to lofty expectations in five-plus years in the Stars system, having a hard time earning a regular NHL job.
He has tools, though, with good puck-moving skills and mobility for a man his size.
“I want to play a responsible defensive game, but at the same time, I think I can move the puck well,” Oleksiak said. “For a guy my size, I’m a pretty decent skater. I can maybe close the gap a little bit, shut down other team’s rushes or opportunities and try to turn it up quickly.”
Rutherford said he moved out Archibald largely because he didn’t envision the 25-year-old speedster seeing a lot of playing time in the near future. He had been a healthy scratch for 32 of 35 games this season.
Rather than risk losing the player on waivers, Rutherford looked for a deal. He said he spoke with Archibald’s agent about finding a landing spot where ice time was more likely.
Leighton, meanwhile, will provide veteran goaltending depth. The 36-year-old has played 111 career NHL games and went 8-3 in the playoffs to help the Flyers to the 2010 Stanley Cup Final.
The acquisition of Leighton also gives Rutherford some goaltending flexibility. If he feels 22-year-old back-up Tristan Jarry isn’t playing enough behind Matt Murray to continue his development, the veteran Leighton could be called up while Jarry does an AHL stint.
Before the trade, next up on the depth chart were Casey DeSmith, who has made two NHL appearances, and Maguire, an oft-injured, second-year pro who has played mostly for the ECHL’s Wheeling Nailers.
“We want to make sure Jarry doesn’t sit too long,” Rutherford said. “He’s come up here and he’s proven he can play here, but if he’s sitting here, we may flip the goalies in and out periodically. It gives us another guy. He’s got NHL experience.”
Leighton will report directly to Wilkes-Barre/Scranton. To make room on the roster for Oleksiak, seventh defenseman Kevin Czuczman was also assigned to the Baby Pens.
While Tuesday’s moves leave Rutherford primed for further roster alterations, the general manager did offer optimism the Penguins could pick up their play without major remodeling in the future.
“I’d like to think we could build on what we did on the road,” Rutherford said. “It was very disappointing, but we did play against three teams that got exceptional goaltending. I’d like to hope, at some point in time, that we start to score more and run into a few average goalies instead of goalies that are having career nights.”
Whether it comes from within or without, Rutherford said the ultimate goal is a lineup without holes.
“We want to have four balanced lines that the coach can roll out there, six capable defensemen and, of course, the goalies,” Rutherford said. “I think if you go back to the teams the last two years, what I just described is what we had. That will be the goal getting to the trade deadline.
“But right now, we’re in a fight to be a playoff team. We have to get to that point before we start worrying about Feb. 28.”
Jonathan Bombulie is a Tribune-Review staff writer. Reach him at [email protected] or via Twitter @BombulieTrib.