The Pittsburgh Penguins needed significant help in the second half of the season because of the decisions made over the summer and in the first half of the season and Penguins GM Jim Rutherford is not one to dig his heels into the ice to force things to work. Rutherford is much more flexible and open to change than his colleagues and the Penguins should be thankful. Rutherford’s moves in the second half of the season not only strengthened the Penguins playoff chances, but they also brightened the Penguins future.
Yesterday, we dished Rutherford’s first-half grade. In the process of examination and analysis, one truth began to emerge. The Penguins great mistake to beat the square peg, Derick Brassard into the round hole of third line center. Brassard told the Penguins he was not down for the third line center role yet they tried…and tried to make it work. Brassard’s unhappiness and the Penguins third line debacle had rippling effects. Also forcing Daniel Sprong into the lineup, who was another square peg and not overly popular in the locker room, fomented disunity.
The unhappiness spread, and by Rutherford’s admission the Penguins were “not a team.” So, we dished Rutherford a poor D+ grade for the first half work. The acquisition of Marcus Pettersson boosted the grade. Read the full piece and analysis here.
The Penguins second half began by dropping the big shoe: The closely watched trade of Brassard. The Penguins bundled Brassard and fourth line forward Riley Sheahan to Florida for Nick Bjugstad and Jared McCann.
Wilkes-Barre/Scranton forward Teddy Blueger was also inserted into the lineup
And Rutherford was almost able to undo the Carl Hagelin trade, too. The Penguins reportedly had a deal in place for the winger but an obscure NHL rule which prevents teams from re-acquiring a player on which they have a salary hold-back. In layman’s terms, organizations can’t trade for a player after they traded him and agreed to eat a piece of his salary to do so. It’s a weird rule, but the NHL CBA is full of those.
Instead of re-acquiring Hagelin, Rutherford was able to deal Tanner Pearson for tough defenseman Erik Gudbranson.
The Penguins lone shaky move was only receiving a fourth-round pick for defenseman Jamie Oleksiak. However, Dallas used Oleksiak only sparingly which put the trade in a different light.
Rutherford Final Grade: B
Rutherford fixed his mistakes and gave the Penguins a real chance to do damage in the playoffs. At some point, it’s on the players and that is the case for these Penguins.
Pearson was a bust as a Penguin. He had just 14 points in 44 games despite playing mostly on Evgeni Malkin’s line. Not only was Pearson’s point total low, but his game impact was also negligible. Rutherford was able to spin Pearson to Vancouver for struggling defenseman Erik Gudbranson.
The Penguins loved Gudbranson’s toughness and felt he had more skills than he showed in Vancouver. Gudbranson agreed with the Penguins assessment. He formed a solid third pairing with Marcus Pettersson and played a role in Washington Capitals forward Tom Wilson being on good behavior when the rivals met. Had the Penguins and Capitals avoided upsets in Round One, Gudbranson’s full value would have been tested and likely on display.
But Rutherford’s first home run came on Feb. 1 when he finally traded Brassard and Riley Sheahan to Florida for Nick Bjugtad and Jared McCann. In one swoop, the Penguins got younger, faster, and better.
In less than 30 games, Bjugstad scored nine goals with the Penguins and McCann scored 11. Not only did Bjugstad and McCann elevate the Penguins game, but they also fit the system the Penguins wanted to play without drama, deviation or freelancing to an old style. With the pair in the Penguins lineup, the team was able to suppress the opposition and control the puck.
At least until the playoffs.
Rutherford should also get credit (perhaps applied to his first half grade) of keeping significant blueline depth. The Penguins went eight deep into their roster after Olli Maatta, Chad Ruhwedel, and Kris Letang missed considerable time.
Also in the second half, Rutherford gets credit for getting Teddy Blueger into the NHL.
The Penguins core deserved another run at the Stanley Cup, and Rutherford eventually added the necessary accessories. As he admitted, the team was tracking well and towards being a good playoff team in March. That March run will be dissected around the Penguins for a long time. The success in the final month proved the team had the necessary ingredients; the GM did his job.
The only way to avoid the final debacle would have been to deal core players at the trade deadline, and that hardly seemed prudent at the time. It may or may not be prudent now, either.
Rutherford assembled a team with four deep lines, a deep defense which was physical and balanced, and two goalies well suited to their roles. And yes, Jack Johnson and Dominik Simon are included in that mix, regardless of how much you may need to blame them for everything including the near collapse of Western civilization.
Sometimes, the playoffs can bring a team together and other times the playoffs crumble teams. It’s no secret into which category the Penguins fall. Now, where the organization goes from here, no one knows. Rutherford must have a better offseason than his previous two but if he makes more decisions like his last couple of trades, the Penguins will be a better team.