Rutherford: Star player treatment still a concern, Pens will beef up in free agency

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At the start of the Stanley Cup Final, Pittsburgh GM Jim Rutherford sounded off on the lack of protection the NHL gives star players, saying “the league has got to fix it.”

Now the season is over, and the Pens are again the champs. But that hasn’t changed Rutherford’s views — and, what’s more, he’s planning on making some fixes himself.

“We are going to try to add a player or two that maybe we can have more protection in our lineup,” Rutherford said, per the Tribune-Review. “That’s not that easy because [coach Mike Sullivan] likes to roll four lines and you’ve got to plug a guy in that can play on a regular basis, but hopefully that’s what we can do.”

Rutherford also doubled down on his criticisms of the liberties opponents are taking with the likes of Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin. He said “the “hits are becoming more than hits — they’re more of an impact where it can end a player’s career,” which, if you’re reading between the lines, sure sounds like an allusion to the Matt Niskanen cross check that concussed Crosby in Round 2.

Niskanen was ejected for his actions, but avoided supplemental discipline.

That lack of additional punishment might be why Rutherford wants to take matters into his own hands.

The Pens did not regularly dress a dedicated tough guy this year. Enforcer Tom Sestito only played in 13 games this year and still led the team in fights, with three.

What Rutherford wants to add is probably someone along the lines of Kyle Clifford or Matt Martin — a tough guy that can play regular shifts and chip in with the occasional bit of offense. Both Clifford and Martin were among the league leaders in scraps this season. Clifford scored 12 points in 73 games while averaging just under 11 minutes per night, while Martin played all 82 regular season and six playoff tilts for the Leafs.

Of course, finding those types of guys is easier said than done. And even if you do, there are those that contend salaries and usage aren’t commensurate with the actual value tough guys provide, especially in terms of possession.