CRANBERRY TOWNSHIP, Pa. — The following are highlights from Penguins general manager Jim Rutherford‘s session with reporters at Wednesday’s locker-room cleanout day at UPMC Lemieux Sports Complex …
• Rutherford has long been a booster of Daniel Sprong, often running contrary to Mike Sullivan‘s apparent comfort level in playing the tantalizing rookie winger.
That love from the GM hasn’t changed one bit, despite Sprong not seeing an NHL game after mid-January. Rutherford stuck his neck out pretty far for his second-round draft pick from 2015.
“Well, he should be a regular on our team,” Rutherford said. “We were very careful with him this year, as you know. We develop players in different ways. Certainly he had the ability at certain times and come in and play an offensive role on our team. But he needed to work on his all-around game. He did that.”
While he scored just three points (one goal) in eight NHL games this season, Sprong’s offensive abilities one again showed up for the Wilkes-Barre/Scranton Penguins. The 21-year-old right winger finished third in the American Hockey League in goals (32) and fifth in points (65).
“There were times in Wilkes-Barre where it dropped off a bit, maybe more from disappointment because he wasn’t called up here,” Rutherford continued. “He’s a very talented player that’ll score a lot of goals in this league. He’ll be a regular on our team next year.”
• Rutherford didn’t have such a ringing endorsement for defenseman Matt Hunwick, who was a healthy scratch for all but nine of the Penguins’ final 44 games, playoffs included.
“I think for a player coming into a team that had the success we had, it’s very different for a player,” Rutherford said. “They try to play outside their game, try to do too much. There were times where he played fine, but I think he put too much pressure on himself.”
The Penguins signed the 32-year-old Hunwick last summer to a three-year contract with an average annual value of $2.25 million, hoping that he’d be a defensive stalwart. But, his on-ice shot-attempt ratio of 49 percent was the lowest among the team’s regular defensemen and his on-ice rate of shots allowed was second-worst on the blue line, ahead of only Justin Schultz.
“He’s still a capable guy,” Rutherford said of Hunwick. “Still a guy who can play here, but he got himself in a position where he got six guys ahead of him and nobody got hurt.”
• On the subject of the blue line, Rutherford was asked if he regretted not adding an experienced defenseman at the trade deadline. As it was, Ian Cole was moved to the Blue Jackets in the Derick Brassard trade — much more on that later this week on Pittsburgh Hockey Now — and Chad Ruhwedel was simply bumped up into the top six after Hunwick continued to flounder.
Rutherford said he continued to try to add a defenseman “right up to the deadline,” but also offered praise to Ruhwedel and Jamie Oleksiak, both of whom had never been regulars for a two-round playoff run at the NHL level.
“Some of the things that people were concerned about, with guys who weren’t in that position before, Oleksiak and Ruhwedel in particular, those guys did not cost us the (Washington) series,” Rutherford said. “Those guys did their jobs. I think if we can improve the defense moving forward and the right thing comes along, we’ll do it.”
• Regarding how much change might be in the offing for this summer, Rutherford was clear that some adjustments have to be made, even though just one player (Carter Rowney) is an unrestricted free agent. Five more — Bryan Rust, Oleksiak, Riley Sheahan, Dominik Simon and Tom Kühnhackl — are restricted free agents, meaning the Penguins get first dibs on retaining them if they so choose.
“It’s obvious I’ve gotta keep an open mind on making some changes,” Rutherford said. “I will make some changes. I can’t give you a definite answer as who it’s going to be right now or the exact positions. But we’re a good team and we will be a good team going forward. We’ll have a chance to win again. We have the nucleus to do that.”
If we dig into the rest of his comments on the matter, it seems Rutherford was hinting that he might look to swing a trade more so than sign a high-profile free agent. While the NHL’s salary cap is expected to rise at least $3 million for 2018-19, the Penguins finished the 2017-18 season less than $300,000 under the cap.
“We also have the pieces in place that other teams are going to want, so we can make those changes,” Rutherford said. “Sometimes you don’t have those players, for cap reasons or for different reasons. I think it’s fair to say this will be a different-looking team. It doesn’t mean there are going to be drastic changes or a lot of changes, but there will be changes in areas that will become necessary.”
• Finally, some levity. Rutherford is 69 years old and thus will constantly face the question of how long he wants to continue in such a day-to-day role.
Of course, his stubborn tenure in Pittsburgh forced former assistant Jason Botterill to take a job in Buffalo last offseason, so there’s no reason to believe he won’t be back for a fifth season as Penguins GM.
“It’s the annual question,” Rutherford said, visibly bemused. “I think the best answer is that I may be around longer than you guys. I have said that to several people. I got these questions in Carolina, when it did look like I was going to start to take it easy with my life.
“I did start telling those people (that) and they are gone. So you may want to check that before you ask me again.”