It seemed like a good idea at the time.
It was July 2009 and the Pittsburgh Penguins had just won the Stanley Cup in their second straight appearance in the Final. They knew they wouldn’t be able to keep everyone from that championship roster, so they focused on keeping their core of players together. That left keystone defenseman Rob Scuderi out in the cold.
Certainly his shining highlight from the 2009 Cup Final, the kick save on Johan Franzen in Game 6, had raised his potential contract value, and surely the 1998 fifth-round pick wasn’t worth the $3.4 million per season for four years the Los Angeles Kings were offering him (more than quadrupling of his $725,000 salary from 2008-09). After all, the Penguins already had a very strong and young core of defenseman, plus they were out of money after all the signings.
Looking back, the Penguins never really replaced Scuderi until they acquired Douglas Murray at the 2013 trade deadline, leading to them being hopeless defensively in the playoffs for the next three seasons. Certainly other factors played into the Penguins’ decline, including a less defensively-oriented coach and other attrition, but Scuderi’s record of success with the Kings since his departure shows his impact on team defense.
In the summer of 2009, the Penguins opened up their coffers for the conquering heroes. They re-signed playoff MVP Evgeni Malkin to the same multi-year deal for $8.7 million a season that Sidney Crosby got in the rash of big-salary signings after the 2008 Cup Final run. Those multi-year, big-dollar signings in the summer of 2008 included Marc-Andre Fleury ($5 million) plus defenders Brooks Orpik ($3.75 million) and Mark Eaton ($2 million).
More signings in the summer of 2009 included salary-doubling deals for third-line center Jordan Staal ($4 million) and defender Alex Goligoski ($1.83 million). Pay increased half-again for Cup-clinching goal scorer Max Talbot ($1.05 million) and depth winger Tyler Kennedy ($725,000). Also re-signed in the summer was Ruslan Fedotenko ($1.8 million). With those deals in place, Scuderi and hulking veteran Hal Gill were deemed expendable. While Gill was already slow-footed and 34, Scuderi had just turned 30 and was entering his prime.
To be fair, the Penguins have been a successful regular-season team since Scuderi left, scoring lots of goals and gaining home-ice advantage in the playoffs every season. But as fans of the Washington Capitals know, regular season success only matters so much. Scuderi was the defensive cog on the blueline; if Crosby was the next Wayne Gretzky, then Scuderi was his Kevin Lowe, a tough but unassuming, low-scoring but exceptionally competent defensive defenseman who killed penalties and was usually overshadowed by flashier players.