The Chicago Blackhawks made their first major signing of the 2017 offseason by inking defenseman Jan Rutta to a one-year contract Wednesday. Rutta had been coveted by several NHL teams over the past few months, and followed the likes of Artemi Panarin, Michal Kempny, and others by choosing the Blackhawks.
The deal has a maximum $925,000 base cap hit and $425,000 in Schedule A performance bonuses, per the Chicago Tribune’s Chris Kuc.
Those two players listed above also give you an idea of how wildly different expectations should be for different European signings. Panarin arrived from Russia from Day 1 as a star winger. Kempny, on the other hand, showed skill, but found himself benched for a good chunk of the second half of his rookie season.
Rutta almost certainly won’t be a star on the magnitude of Panarin, who is one of the best signings by any NHL team over the past five years, but the hope is that he can have an immediate impact. A 27-year-old by the start of next season, he’s not a prospect, but someone who factors into present day plans.
So what can Rutta bring to the table? Here’s a quick look.
A right-handed, offensive-minded defenseman
Last season, the Hawks’ defensemen on the right side were usually Seabrook, Niklas Hjalmarsson, and Trevor van Riemsdyk. That’s not a bad group, but it wasn’t really ideal. Seabrook is no longer a great 5-on-5 player, and the best of the three players, Hjalmarsson, was playing his offside. TVR is more serviceable third pairing defenseman than a game-changer.
Rutta may or may not be better than any of those players, but his presence could at least free up some options for Joel Quenneville. Do the Hawks want to get Hjalmarsson back on the left side? Are they planning for the departure of TVR in the expansion draft? Rutta may be a factor in those situations.
He has shown the ability to put up numbers in the Czech Extraliga. Last season with Piráti Chomutov, Rutta set a career-high with 32 points in 46 games, an improvement from 21 points in 44 games the prior season. He’s also been a member of the Czech Republic national team, although he hasn’t factored in as a key player there.
But if you’re trying to think of Rutta in terms of a mold, he is a righty offensive defenseman. Ideally, that would slot him into the third pairing and as a potential power play option.
A potential TVR replacement
The way Rutta is most likely to fit into the Hawks’ lineup is by replacing van Riemsdyk, who is likely a goner this summer via trade or the expansion draft. TVR is under contract at an affordable $825,000 for next season, but the Blackhawks won’t be able to protect him from Vegas, so they’re considering trading him soon to recoup some value.
If (or, really, when) that happens, the Blackhawks will have a hole for a right-handed defenseman lower in their lineup. Rutta may not be the kind of player who could replace Seabrook or Hjalmarsson on the right side, but he could conceivably do what van Riemsdyk did for the Hawks.
A low-risk signing
That’s the most likely scenario here: the Blackhawks view Rutta as a potential TVR replacement who otherwise can be brushed aside at minimal cost if it doesn’t work. The team doesn’t have a ton of NHL-ready right-handed defensemen options in the system other than Ville Pokka, so it makes sense that the team would take a flier on a well-regarded player like Rutta, especially given the lack of risk on a one-year deal.
Rutta will also be waivers-exempt, per Cap Friendly, so the Blackhawks will be able to reassign him to the AHL to provide depth in Rockford if necessary. And Rutta is set to be an unrestricted free agent next summer, so he’ll likely be walking either way — if he’s bad, the Hawks won’t want him back. If he’s good enough, he’ll likely price himself out of the their market next summer.
But as a depth signing, this is a sensible move that provides something of a Plan B for the Blackhawks as they go through the offseason. All indications are that GM Stan Bowman is considering some bigger changes. Having someone like Rutta in the fold could make it easier to pull the trigger on trading TVR (or someone else) without being stuck in a place of desperation.