Kovacevic: Rutherford can now lay down law


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WINNIPEG, Manitoba — The Penguins have dragged around two defensemen too many for a while. And before long, based on what we’ve witnessed of late, there’ll be a few forwards too many, as well.

Fine. So take full advantage of both.

Jim Rutherford will never concede he needs to make a trade, even in the most obvious circumstance. But he really does. And on defense, in particular, it’s got to happen soon, lest we’re subjected to more of Erik Gudbranson on the left side. It’s not a sustainable circumstance for Mike Sullivan and staff, never mind the players themselves. Chad Ruhwedel signed up to be a No. 7, but the rest need to do more than skate in circles each morning.

If I’m the GM, I’m taking a three-pronged approach:

1. Trade Gudbranson and/or Jack Johnson for cap space. If all that culls is a late-round draft pick, fine. If it culls less, whatever. Don’t sweat the optics. Prioritize creating the financial freedom to make the next move or moves without worrying about the cap.

2. Within that, strongly consider that any savings could be put toward a serious offer to keep Justin Schultz from becoming an unrestricted free agent next summer. His once-broken leg’s finally regained full strength, and he’s been exceptional in the early going. He needs to be kept.

3. Make it clear to all of the injured forwards — yes, including Evgeni Malkin — that the way the current forwards are playing is the way they’ll all be expected to play. Do that now, not later. Let all four of them — Malkin, Nick Bjugstad, Alex Galchenyuk, Bryan Rust — watch these ongoing games through a more urgent lens. Let them see that a handful of Wilkes-Barre call-ups are getting the job done and, in Sam Lafferty’s case and maybe others, could be carving out permanent work in the NHL.

From there, watch, listen, learn. Find out who absorbs this, and who doesn’t. Whoever doesn’t — no exceptions — can’t receive special treatment. Lafferty has “earned the ice time he’s getting,” as Sullivan stated here after the Penguins blew out the Jets, 7-2, Sunday night. John Marino has “earned the ice time he’s getting,” as Sullivan stated Saturday morning in St Paul. That’s how it’s supposed to work. Earn the ice time. Earn the roster spot.

Some decisions will be hard. Executing any related moves will be harder. But this part should be academic.

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