Reunion time for Penguins

From Mirror, wire reports

On Sunday, Pittsburgh Penguins general manager Jim Rutherford made two free agent signings in hopes of improving the team’s fortunes for the 2018-2019 season.

The Penguins signed defenseman Jack Johnson to a five-year contract that will pay him $16.25 million. Following that move, the Penguins announced that veteran center Matt Cullen was returning to the team after spending the 2017-18 season as a member of the Minnesota Wild.

Cullen was part of the Penguins’ Stanley Cup winning teams in 2016 and 2017 before leaving as a free agent prior to last season. The Penguins reportedly attempted to re-acquire him via trade throughout the season but were never able to make it work. His contract is a one-year deal worth $650,000.

Johnson is coming off of a tough season in Columbus that saw him end the year as a healthy scratch. He also turns 32 years this season.

Financially speaking, the $3.25 million salary cap hit is over a five-year commitment. The defense of the signing all revolves around Johnson getting into a better situation and the ability of the Penguins’ coaching staff, led by defense coach Sergei Gonchar, being able to help him the same way they helped improve Justin Schultz and Jamie Oleksiak in previous years.

In other news, John Tavares isn’t the only free agent going back to a familiar place.

Several players are returning to their former teams and comfortable situations — like James van Riemsdyk going back to Philadelphia. It’s not quite the tug at the heartstrings that led Tavares to sign a $77 million, seven-year deal with his boyhood Toronto Maple Leafs, but familiarity was part of the bustle on the opening day of NHL free agency .

“I have that comfortablity with knowing a lot about the organization having played there in the past and having a lot of familiar faces still on the staff and stuff like that,” van Riemsdyk said after signing a $35 million, five-year deal with the Flyers. “Even just remembering to my time previously is just how bad obviously they want to win and they’re willing to put the resources into that. That passion and that commitment to that was a big thing for me.”

Unsure there’d be room for him after his old team re-signed Riley Sheahan, Cullen signed a $650,000, one-year deal with the Penguins after spending a season back home in Minnesota. Tomas Plekanec was away from Montreal for only a few months, signing a bonus-laden $2.25 million, one-year deal with the Canadiens after they traded him to the rival Maple Leafs at the deadline.

Plekanec had planned since the end of the season to go back to Montreal, where his family remained when he went to Toronto. He will be back at the Bell Centre on a contract that can be worth another $1.25 million in incentives. The 35-year-old will get to play his 1,000th career regular-season game in his familiar blue, white and red uniform this October.

“That was my priority,” Plekanec said. “I wanted to come back.”

While Plekanec obviously felt a strong connection to Montreal after 14 seasons there, David Perron will be playing for the St. Louis Blues for the third time in his NHL career after signing for $16 million over four years. Perron spent his first six seasons with the Blues after they took him in the first round in 2007, returned as a free agent two summers ago, was taken by the Golden Knights in the expansion draft a year ago and is back again after setting career highs with 50 assists and 66 points in Las Vegas.

“Obviously (the Golden Knights) made the right decision with the way that David played for them,” Blues general manager Doug Armstrong said. “He certainly could’ve made more money on the market. He wanted to come back.”

Thomas Vanek enjoyed his 48 games with the Detroit Red Wings in 2016-17 so much he wanted to sign with them last July but they didn’t have enough salary-cap space. When the opportunity presented itself this time, the 34-year-old winger zeroed in on a one-year deal and chose Detroit’s $3 million offer over a few other options.

“I loved it there,” Vanek said. “It was a good it. I really liked the whole culture of the organization and the guys were great. We tried to make it work last year. It didn’t work out, so I’m happy it did this year.”

It was a bit more complicated for the Flyers, who traded van Riemsdyk to Toronto in 2012 in a one-for-one deal for bruising defenseman Luke Schenn. That was under a previous regime that believed the 6-foot-3, 217-pound left winger wasn’t tough enough, but GM Ron Hextall sees a player who checks the boxes for a playoff contender with a few holes.

“We felt with the fit that we needed some size,” Hextall said. “We needed goal-scoring. We need a left winger. This one just fit all around for us and I think James felt the same way.”

The personality fit was there, too, because Flyers management knew van Riemsdyk, who is 29. Coming through Philadelphia’s system as the second overall pick in 2007 helped with Hextall being willing to make his biggest free agent splash.

“We know the person — people inside this organization — (and) obviously that helps,” Hextall said.

Van Riemsdyk did his homework by talking with captain Claude Giroux, winger Jakub Voracek and recent Flyers players before choosing to return to his first NHL organization. He also fondly remembered the Flyers’ run to the Cup Final in 2010.

“Hopefully again we get a chance to do something like that in the future,” he said.

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