Pittsburgh Penguins GM Jim Rutherford shook the Penguins on Tuesday afternoon. In his season-ending press conference, Rutherford laid bare many of the same criticisms and frustrations which fans also voiced. From the power play to the lack of desperation in Game 4 against the Montreal Canadiens, Rutherford spoke plainly but bluntly.
While head coach Mike Sullivan is safe for the moment, and the Penguins core is secure, it seems no one else is.
“My concern is when things don’t go our way, we start to fizzle out and we don’t have that same drive and determination that we should have and need to have,” Rutherford said flatly. “Based on that, I’m looking at everything now.”
Team sources told Pittsburgh hockey now that a coaching change at the assistant level could be expected this week, and sources are beginning to identify potential offseason dealings. We’ll have more on that later on Tuesday.
Jim Rutherford was clear on the problems he saw with his team, and the solution he intends to pursue.
“Different ideas. Different approach. Younger, determined players. … Fixing the power play,” he said. “It’s so frustrating to watch us go time and time again and not get good scoring chances.”
From Rutherford’s lips to fan’s ears. Or perhaps it was also the other way around, as the Penguins power play was 1-12 in the first two games of the Qualifying Round. One more goal, or at least more high-grade chances and it could have changed the series.
The Pittsburgh Penguins raced to the fourth-best record in the NHL by January, but stumbled through February into March and finished with the seventh-best record.
“We had a good regular season and dealt with adversity and got through that. You look at that and give credit in the right places,” Rutherford continued. “You also have to look at what happened here at the end of these last two seasons, and there’s a pattern here.”
Rutherford’s admission of a pattern flies directly against the words of head coach Mike Sullivan who rebuffed that very question from PHN after elimination.
Sullivan offered the exact opposite response.
“No. I think its an indication of how hard it is to win. You’re talking about three completely different seasons. Three completely different teams. I’m not sure that adds up.”
The Penguins are 1-7 in their last two seasons of postseason play; those are four straight losses to the New York Islanders and losses in three of four games to the Montreal Canadiens.
“You’re waiting for the desperation from the drop of the puck, and it didn’t come in the first period … It was even worse in the third period,” he said. “There’s something wrong if you don’t have that drive to win at that point in the series.”
Rutherford’s bluntness culminated in the sentence, which he repeated several times.
“There is something wrong. Changes need to be made.”
Jack Johnson, Matt Murray, the Core
Jim Rutherford dished a stern criticism towards his defensemen, as well. The Pittsburgh Penguins third pairing with Jack Johnson and Justin Schultz was much maligned, but fans heaped scorn upon Johnson.
Here’s the full PHN breakdown of several incidents in question.
However, instead of laying blame on Johnson, Rutherford identified the same culprit as did PHN.
“I know everybody picks on Jack and they have for a long time, but I think, in that pairing, Justin Schultz had a lot more to give,” Rutherford said.
Schultz is a pending unrestricted free agent. He just completed a three-year, $16.5 million deal, which he signed after leading the Penguins defensive corps in Kris Letang’s injury absence to the 2017 Stanley Cup.
Schultz scored 51 points that season but has not mustered anything close to that performance since signing the contract. Injuries, including a broken leg last season, and slumps derailed Schultz.
Against Montreal, he struggled to find his positioning.
Rutherford affirmed his desire to move forward with the Penguins core group intact, with Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin, and Kris Letang. Pending an otherworldly offer the Penguins can’t refuse, Rutherford plans to re-build around them.
“Sid’s leadership never changes, and his approach never changes. I have no concerns there. I think we do need a little more out of some of the other guys,” Rutherford said.
“Are they in a position to still give that leadership, whether it’s by example on the ice or in the room verbally, or do we need some other guys to step up and do more? Maybe it’s better to have younger, more eager guys. That’s part of what I’m trying to weigh.”
PHN isn’t entirely sure to whom Rutherford was referring, as he already committed to keeping the core. The only other established veterans on the team are Johnson, Patric Hornqvist, Bryan Rust, and Brian Dumoulin.
Rutherford punted the question of which goalie he would keep. He repeated that Matt Murray had a better second half than Tristan Jarry, and neither was the issue in the playoffs. Rutherford did acknowledge it will be challenging to keep both.
The overriding theme of the final Jim Rutherford presser of the 2019-2020 season was changing. Penguins fans who shook their fist and clamored for it will likely get their wish.