Rutherford shows faith in Penguins roster; deal with Patric Hornqvist nears |

Rutherford shows faith in Penguins roster; deal with Patric Hornqvist nears

Jonathan Bombulie
Chaz Palla | Tribune-Review
The Penguins' Patric Hornqvist and Avalanche defenseman Erik Johnson fight for the puck in the third period Monday, Dec. 11, 2017 at PPG Paints Arena.

Penguins general manager Jim Rutherford didn’t make any major deals at Monday’s NHL trade deadline.

Instead, he handed out votes of confidence.

To winger Patric Hornqvist, who is close to agreeing to a long-term contract extension.

To the defensemen at the bottom of the NHL depth chart, Matt Hunwick and Chad Ruhwedel, whose spots weren’t taken by last-minute additions.

To prospect Daniel Sprong, who wasn’t traded away in any deals for short-term rentals.

To back-up goalies Tristan Jarry and Casey DeSmith, who will be tasked with carrying the load should Matt Murray go down with injuries.

“As a (management) group, as we talked through it last night and today. We feel we have a real strong team, good enough and ready to compete,” Rutherford said.

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The news Rutherford was most excited about sharing after the deadline passed Monday afternoon was the Hornqvist contract extension, which he said was “very close” to being official. According to multiple sources, the deal is for five years with an average annual salary of $5.3 million.

Hornqvist’s deal could be a tight squeeze if the salary cap doesn’t go up much from this season’s $75 million level, and the hard-nosed Swede will be 36 by the time it expires, but Rutherford was clearly uncomfortable with the idea of letting the team’s emotional leader walk in free agency July 1.

“Over my career, I’ve done very few contracts during the season, so this shows what the organization and what I think of Patric, to get in and get it done sooner than later,” Rutherford said.

It was widely expected Rutherford would add at least one player to bolster his defensive depth after Ian Cole was lost to Ottawa in the Derick Brassard trade Friday.

The fact he did not means the team has confidence Hunwick can handle a regular role, Ruhwedel will be a capable fill-in, and potential Wilkes-Barre call-ups such as Frankie Corrado, Andrey Pedan and Zach Trotman will perform acceptably if called upon.

“I don’t want to suggest that we didn’t talk to teams about defensemen today, but it was more for depth and insurance,” Rutherford said. “So yeah, you could say it’s a vote of confidence for the group of seven.”

A few hours before the deadline, Murray left practice early after taking a puck to the head. There’s no indication Murray will be out long term — Rutherford said he would be evaluated further Tuesday morning — but it shined a spotlight on another potential roster hole at back-up goalie.

Rutherford opted not to fill that hole with a veteran, showing faith in Jarry and DeSmith.

“We feel both those guys are capable guys and certainly every bit as capable as any goalie that may have been out there to add depth for us,” Rutherford said.

To the surprise of no one, Rutherford said he was involved in multiple discussions about multiple players Monday, which fits with the “all-in” philosophy he espoused leading up to the deadline. A fit just couldn’t be found.

“The prices that were being paid for players and the players we were interested in, it just didn’t get to the point that it made sense to make a deal,” Rutherford said.

It’s hard to imagine the Penguins could have made a marquee deal Monday without including Sprong. Not trading him represents another vote of confidence on a day full of them.

“We like Daniel Sprong a lot,” Rutherford said. “He can score goals and he’s going to score goals in this league, but our assessment of him is he needs to get his all-around game together before he can be a full-time player in Pittsburgh.”

The Penguins did pull off one minor deal Monday, acquiring center Josh Jooris from Carolina for Greg McKegg.

Jooris, 27, has three goals and three assists in 31 games this season. McKegg, 25, had two goals and two assists in 26 games with the Penguins at the beginning of the year.

Jooris was assigned to Wilkes-Barre. Rutherford said the move gives the Penguins “a little more insurance, a little more depth at center ice.”

Jonathan Bombulie is a Tribune-Review staff writer. Reach him at [email protected] or via Twitter @BombulieTrib.

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