Penguins add veteran defensemen in Lovejoy and Cole
PITTSBURGH (AP) Jim Rutherford spent his first nine months on the job as Pittsburgh Penguins general manager reassembling the team around franchise cornerstones Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin.
The final touches brought back a familiar face.
Pittsburgh acquired defensemen Ben Lovejoy from Anaheim and Ian Cole from St. Louis on Monday, hoping the veterans provide for a group that is starting to round into form with a quarter of the regular season remaining.
''To have a good run in the playoffs you need experience and that's what we've done here,'' Rutherford said.
The 31-year-old Lovejoy returns to the Penguins after spending two-plus seasons with the Ducks. Shipped out west for a fifth-round pick in 2012, Lovejoy comes back to his original NHL team with a steadier hand and a knack for marking the smart play if not always the spectacular one.
It's why Rutherford didn't mind parting with 23-year-old defenseman Simon Despres to bring Lovejoy home. Despres led Pittsburgh with 184 hits but also struggled with responsible play. That won't be an issue with Lovejoy, who has one goal and 10 assists in 40 games with Anaheim this season and the thick skin developed from 20 playoff games for the Ducks over the last two seasons.
''He's really blossomed,'' Rutherford said. ''He's developed into a solid consistent defender. Our guys felt very strong about reacquiring this player.''
Pittsburgh sent Robert Bortuzzo and a seventh-round pick in the 2016 draft to the Blues in exchange for Cole. The 26-year-old Cole has four goals and five assists in 54 games for St. Louis this season. Cole's plus-16 plus/minus ratio ranked third on the team at the time of the trade even though he was only an intermittent presence in the St. Louis lineup.
While neither Lovejoy or Cole play with quite the same physicality as Despres or Bortuzzo - whose 68 penalty minutes were second on the team - he doesn't see that as an issue when the calendar flips to the postseason.
''Clearly the two guys we traded may be a more little aggressive on the fighting side than the two guys we got back,'' Rutherford said. ''There will be a few that we play in the regular season that we'll need that. We'll have to do that as a unit ... but when you get to the playoffs, it's not as useful.''
Not nearly as useful as taking care of the puck, a virtue held in high esteem by first-year Pittsburgh coach Mike Johnston. Pittsburgh goaltender Marc-Andre Fleury is having the finest season of his career in part because of steady play in front of him. Lovejoy and Cole are both upgrades in terms of skill and skating.
They'll also be the last additions of note for a team that has won four straight and sits third in the cramped Metropolitan Division heading into a four-game West Coast road trip that begins on Wednesday in Colorado. Lovejoy is the 11th player the Penguins have acquired or signed since Rutherford replaced Ray Shero last summer, meaning half of the roster wasn't around when Pittsburgh flamed out in the Eastern Conference semifinals a year ago.
Rutherford brought in forward David Perron to play alongside Crosby, and Perron has responded with 10 goals since his arrival. Maxim Lapierre came over from St. Louis last month to provide some toughness on the bottom two lines. Daniel Winnik played his first game with Pittsburgh in Sunday's 5-3 win over Columbus, providing an assist on the third line and some of his trademark penalty killing smarts.
While not the blockbuster moves sometimes favored by Shero, Rutherford believes he's done what he can to put the Penguins in position to make what he hopes is an extended postseason stay.
''The Penguins have as good a chance as any team in the Eastern Conference,'' Rutherford said. ''As the year has gone along we got stronger and stronger with the additions that we made and all the adversity we had to deal with and where we sit in the standings now shows what kind of team we have.''