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No fear for Penguins’ Jim Rutherford entering free agency

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Penguins general manager Jim Rutherford has his final meeting of the season with the media at the team's facility in Cranberry on Wednesday, May 9, 2018.
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Penguins general manager Jim Rutherford looks on during the game between the Pirates and the Brewers on April 15, 2016, at PNC Park.
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Columbus Blue Jackets defenseman Jack Johnson waits for a face off during the second period of an NHL hockey game against the New York Islanders, Saturday, Feb. 3, 2018 in New York. (AP Photo/Mary Altaffer)

It would be perfectly reasonable if Penguins general manager Jim Rutherford went into Sunday’s opening of the NHL free-agent signing period with trepidation.

He’s not exactly on a July 1 winning streak. Last year’s haul, backup goalie Antti Niemi and defenseman Matt Hunwick for a total of about $3 million per year, hardly set the world on fire.

Rutherford, though, won’t be guided by fear when the contract floodgates open at noon.

“I’m not wary of anything in the past,” Rutherford said. “If we think we can do something to make our team better, we’ll take a chance with that.”

If all goes as expected, Rutherford will add a defenseman who can help even out the minutes on his blue line — reportedly Jack Johnson — and perhaps a bottom-six winger who can score, if the price is right.

Rutherford isn’t nervous about that plan, largely because it fits nicely into how he believes free agency is best used.

He thinks it’s a good roster-building tool for a team that needs to make a few targeted improvements to reach its ultimate goal. Think Matt Cullen coming aboard with the Penguins in the summer of 2015.

Rutherford thinks it’s a dangerous tool for a team looking to add game-changing talent. Think the disastrous Alexander Semin situation in Carolina.

“We were looking for complementary players last year,” Rutherford said. “It wasn’t that we were making big, long-term investments in an impact player. When you do that, some work. Some don’t.

“If we were in a rebuild situation, looking at top-end guys, it becomes a lot riskier. The moves we made last year, there’s not a whole lot of risk to.”

This raises an obvious question, of course. How risky is a potential Johnson signing?

According to reports, Johnson will get a five-year deal. According to projections, he will earn between $3 and $4 million per year. Given his physical tools and the Penguins’ penchant for rehabilitating defensemen who struggle elsewhere, there’s a decent chance Johnson steps in and thrives.

But what if the analytics ring true, a move to a more up-tempo system doesn’t work for Johnson and he ends up hurting, not helping, the Penguins’ cause?

Ultimately, it’s probably less risky than it sounds.

Last year, there were 97 defensemen in the NHL making $3.5 million or more. That number’s only going to go up as more defensemen hit free agency and the salary cap continues to escalate. Johnson probably will be getting paid like an average fourth defenseman.

On top of that, there are ways out of signings that don’t work. The Penguins were rid of Niemi — thanks to a waiver claim by Florida — before the end of October last season. They were out from under Hunwick’s three-year deal — thanks to a trade with Buffalo — by last week.

Between trade options and the potential for compliance buyouts related to the next CBA in 2020 or ’22, it’s unlikely the Penguins will be stuck under a Johnson contract for long.

The search for a bottom-six winger who can score might actually prove a little more problematic for Rutherford.

If the Penguins, as expected, sign Johnson and re-up Jamie Oleksiak to round out their defense corps, they’ll have between $2 and $3 million left under the cap.

Rutherford might be able to find a useful player in that range. As free agency drives up prices, he might not. He said last week if there’s no free-agent forward who makes sense, he’ll gladly bank on prospects Daniel Sprong, Zach Aston-Reese and Dominik Simon being the players who boost the team’s scoring balance.

The wild card, of course, is the trade market.

Rutherford said he expected trade talks around the league to pick up once the John Tavares sweepstakes came to a conclusion. If the market loosens up considerably, there’s little doubt Rutherford will at least explore what’s out there.

It won’t be easy for the Penguins to pull off an impactful trade. They have limited cap space and few coveted trade chips to offer.

But there’s one thing for sure: Whatever route Rutherford takes, he won’t be coming at it from a position of fear.

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

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