Offseason going according to plan for Penguins so far |
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Jonathan Bombulie
The Penguins' Conor Sheary celebrates after a goal during the second period against the Flyers on Wednesday, March 7, 2018, in Philadelphia.

With the opening of the free-agent period approaching Sunday afternoon, the offseason largely has gone according to plan for the Penguins.

Days after the team’s three-peat bid ended at the hands of the Washington Capitals, general manager Jim Rutherford set his course for the summer.

“It doesn’t mean there’s going to be drastic changes or a lot of changes, but there will be changes,” Rutherford said.

Rutherford knew even then that one of those changes would have to include salary cap relief. There was little chance he could re-sign all the restricted free agents he wanted to keep without it.

So he sent Conor Sheary and Matt Hunwick to Buffalo for a draft pick and used the $5.5 million in cap savings to re-up Bryan Rust to a long-term deal and Riley Sheahan to a one-year contract. Jamie Oleksiak is next on the docket to re-sign, and there’s money set aside for that.

With the cap situation in order, Rutherford turned his attention to improving his roster.

“I’d like to get more balance at forward and defense. More depth and more balance,” he said.

On defense, that meant evening out the minutes among the top six and relieving some of the burden on Kris Letang. The team’s reported interest in Jack Johnson might be controversial to fans who debate his quality as a player, but he has averaged more than 23 minutes per game in his career. If he’s signed, he will balance the ice time on the blue line.

At forward, that meant more consistent scoring threats in the bottom six. That could come from a free-agent addition Sunday. It could come from taking shifts Tom Kuhnhackl and Carter Rowney played last season and giving them to talented prospects Daniel Sprong, Zach Aston-Reese and Dominik Simon. Either way, there’s a good chance depth scoring will improve.

So there you go. That’s that. See you in October.

“If we could add another defenseman, I think I’d be pretty happy going into opening night,” Rutherford said Wednesday.

Rutherford’s reputation, of course, casts a shadow of doubt on that comment.

He is known as an aggressive trader and a creative mind when it comes to cap concerns. If a sure-fire all-star like Carolina’s Jeff Skinner sits on the trading block into late July, does anyone believe Rutherford really would be “pretty happy” chilling until opening night?

Perhaps surprisingly, there are signs pointing to yes.

For one thing, Rutherford is not of the belief that the Penguins need to improve drastically to keep pace with the Washington Capitals in the Metropolitan Division.

He said Monday that he thinks the three series the rivals have played over the last three years could have gone either way.

“We had a handful of players that weren’t playing to the top of their ability this year against Washington, but even with that, if we score in overtime when we hit the post, we go back to Washington for a Game 7, and you don’t know,” Rutherford said.

For another thing, there’s a widespread belief in the organization than an extra month of offseason will be just what the doctor ordered for a team that dealt with fatigue at times during its three-peat bid.

“I think it’s great for our guys,” coach Mike Sullivan said. “They’ve got an opportunity to get away from the game a little bit. It’s an opportunity to reenergize and get excited about the game.

“I think certainly watching other teams compete in the Stanley Cup Final has given me a whole lot of motivation to want to be one of those teams again, and I believe our players feel the same way.”

If Rutherford’s preliminary plan holds and the rest of the summer is quiet for the Penguins, some trade-craving fans might be agitated. Their sentiments, however, probably won’t be shared by those in the locker room.

“I think we’re happy with the group we’ve got,” Sheahan said. “We know we can be dangerous. I think guys are starting to look forward to getting back at it next season.”

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

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