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Penguins GM Jim Rutherford says he has plan in place for offseason

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In this file photo from June 22, 2016 Pittsburgh Penguins general manger Jim Rutherford attends the NHL Awards at the Hard Rock Hotel & Casino in Las Vegas.
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Chaz Palla | Tribune-Review
The Penguin's Phil Kessel plays against the Capitals May, 2018 at PPG Paints Arena.
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Penguins general manager Jim Rutherford watches the team during practice Saturday, May 28, 2016 at the UPMC Lemieux Sports Complex.

With an uneventful draft weekend in the rearview mirror, Penguins general manager Jim Rutherford has the plan for the next part of his offseason mapped out.

There’s a good chance the plan will include trading away a winger to free up salary cap space, which could lead to adding a dependable defenseman and bottom-six scoring help.

There’s very little chance it will include trading Phil Kessel.

There’s even less chance it will include signing John Tavares.

The Penguins were described in national media reports as potential darkhorses to enter the fray to sign Tavares, the top prize in this year’s free-agent class.

Looking at his salary cap situation, Rutherford laughed off the notion Monday afternoon.

“I’m a creative. I’m not a magician,” he joked.

Rutherford was almost as dismissive of the idea that he might trade Kessel. He was asked if he’s planning on keeping the 30-year-old winger around despite rumors to the contrary.

“Yeah. Did I ever say I wasn’t?” Rutherford replied.

With the quips out of the way, Rutherford earnestly discussed his plans for the summer.

The first order of business appears to be freeing up a little bit of cap space. The bill is coming due after consecutive Stanley Cup championships, and if Rutherford wants any freedom to make any kind of roster alterations — whether it’s when the free-agent signing period opens Sunday or later in the summer — his payroll needs a haircut.

Rutherford didn’t mention any cap-casualty candidates, but based on the way the team’s roster is constructed, it’s likely to be a winger. Conor Sheary’s $3 million salary and Carl Hagelin’s $4 million paycheck stand out.

“With the forwards that we have, even if we moved one out, we still have enough forwards to create the four-line balance within the group we have, which was helped with the midseason deals with (Riley) Sheahan and (Derick) Brassard,” Rutherford said. “The fact that we’ve got the structure down the middle, and we’ve got good young wingers coming, we can do that from within.”

Rutherford said he plans to use the cap space he creates in two ways.

For one, he wants to add a defenseman who can allow coach Mike Sullivan to roll his three pairs more evenly. That would limit Kris Letang’s minutes, which Rutherford said he thinks would lead to an improvement in the 31-year-old’s play.

“Getting him to 24 minutes would not only help him but help the team and help his longevity,” Rutherford said.

Also, Rutherford would like to add some scoring punch to the bottom end of the forward lineup.

“I’d like to get more production out of our fourth line,” Rutherford said. “I think it makes it more difficult for the players when you’re putting extra pressure on the top two lines and the power play. We have good enough players to carry us through that, but I’d prefer they don’t feel that extra pressure.”

Another way Rutherford could ease the pressure on his top stars, of course, is to add another star to the mix. While a healthy dose of Rutherford creativity would be required to make any marquee addition possible under the cap, there’s a reason the Penguins keep getting linked to players like Carolina scorer Jeff Skinner in trade rumors.

The team’s identity is based on speed and skill, and Rutherford has no plans to change that, no matter how last season ended.

“I think (goalie Braden) Holtby had his best series against us of the three. He was rested,” Rutherford said. “(Evgeny) Kuznetsov, he came into his own, and their top players, for the first time, played the game the right way. That was the difference. I don’t think the difference was because they became bigger and stronger.”

Rutherford said he thought the trade market was stagnant at the draft because teams were waiting to see where Tavares and Ilya Kovalchuk ended up before they made their moves.

If the Tavares signing doesn’t break the logjam, Rutherford said he’s OK with that, too.

“I think it would be good if we could make a few changes, but if we don’t, we still have a good team,” he said. “You don’t win the Cup in June or July. You have until the trade deadline to put the finishing touches on it. If I felt our team had to improve to compete in the regular season, then I’d feel more urgency, but I don’t feel that.”

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

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