Catch and Release; Jim Rutherford Casts Himself as Both Buyer and Seller at the NHL Trade Deadline

With the NHL trade deadline fast approaching, general managers once again seem to find themselves in one of two categories; that of being either a buyer or a seller.  Pittsburgh Penguins general manager Jim Rutherford, however, seems to find himself in both roles as all indications are that he will be very active before 3 p.m. EST on February 25th when the NHL trade market closes.

While Rutherford has never been reluctant to reshape his roster, his most recent moves seem to have put a revolving door on the Penguins’ locker room as, for the second time in as many seasons, he has traded for a player only to turn around and deal that same player away less than a season later.

Jim Rutherford Swings and Misses

The first player to come and go was Ryan Reaves who, after arriving in a much-criticized draft day trade in 2017, was dealt to the Vegas Golden Knights at the trade deadline just six months later in the convoluted trade that brought Derick Brassard to Pittsburgh.

Then came (and went) Jamie Oleksiak who, after being acquired from the Dallas Stars in exchange for a fourth-round pick in Dec. 2017, was signed to a three-year extension during this past offseason, but was ultimately dealt back to the Stars on Jan. 28 for that same fourth-round pick.

And let’s not forget the ill-fated acquisition of defenseman Matt Hunwick who Rutherford signed to a three-year deal in the summer of 2017 and was then shipped to the Buffalo Sabres along with forward Conor Sheary for yet another fourth-round pick in the summer of 2018. While Rutherford may have been less than successful at addressing all the Penguins’ needs since winning back-to-back Stanley Cups in 2016 and 2017, it hasn’t been for lack of trying.

Penguins general manager Jim Rutherford
Penguins general manager Jim Rutherford (Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports)

Having shown a willingness to buy and sell his way out of past mistakes, Rutherford must now decide how best to deal with another of his recent acquisitions who hasn’t panned out; the aforementioned Brassard.  Regarded as a top playoff performer and a perfect fit in the Penguins’ system, Brassard was expected to fill the third line center role vacated when Nick Bonino signed with the Nashville Predators in the summer of 2017.

However, in 66 regular and postseason games with the Penguins, Brassard has managed just 13 goals and 14 assists and has yet to show any chemistry with the enigmatic Phil Kessel with whom he was acquired to play alongside. While Rutherford was praised for his aggressive move to add the top center on the market, Brassard has never seemed comfortable with the idea of being a third line center and the reproduction of the “HBK” line fell flat. Plus, Carl Hagelin was traded to the Los Angeles Kings on Nov. 14.

“Big Game Brass” Falls Flat

With a career-worst Corsi rating of 43.8 percent, Brassard is struggling with the Penguins and, as an impending free agent, will almost assuredly be playing elsewhere next season.  Therefore, it seems almost a foregone conclusion that Rutherford will make that move happen sooner rather than later and there are a lot of potential trade partners.

As reported by Pittsburgh Hockey Now, scouts from 13 teams were in attendance at the Penguins’ Jan. 28 game against the New Jersey Devils, including the Winnipeg Jets, who were widely considered to be the front-runner to get Brassard at last season’s trade deadline.  Brassard’s tenure with the Penguins appears to be coming to an end and even he seems to know it.

Having cleared $2.1 million in salary cap space by sending Oleksiak back to the Stars, (according to Rutherford has the Penguins well-positioned to be very active at the trade deadline.

One player to keep a close eye on is forward Michael Ferland of the Carolina Hurricanes, who has been linked to the Penguins by Elliotte Friedman and others.  With the Hurricanes looking to add a top-six forward, a trade involving Brassard for Ferland would make sense for both teams.

While Rutherford’s history has shown that it’s hard to predict what he will do between now and the trade deadline, it’s safe to assume he will not be a passive bystander and the Penguins’ roster will not be the same as it is today.