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Mistakes Detoured the Penguins After 2017 Stanley Cup Win



Pittsburgh Penguins Ian Cole
Ian Cole: Photo by Michael Miller

Hindsight is 20/20, and such is the reason I hate to write these types of columns. Too often, we dwell on things that didn’t work but forget to analyze the real-time decision-making process, which may have been very correct. Sure, it’s easy to poke at the Pittsburgh Penguins acquisition of Ryan Reaves at the 2017 NHL Draft, but too many fans still mistakenly think the Penguin traded their first round pick for Reaves. The Reaves trade was the least of the Penguins missteps, which began their nearly three-year detour away from the Stanley Cup.

Once more for the record, the Penguins only traded down 20 spots and dished a center (Oskar Sundqvist) whom they weren’t confident was an NHL player in their system. But I digress.

Also, let’s be crystal clear. GM Jim Rutherford and Mike Sullivan have been outstanding. Compared to their contemporaries, each has been among the best. But, no one is perfect, and some actions had predictably bad results. A few rippled even further.

Reaves didn’t work out. It wasn’t even close, but the thinking and the effort were spot-on. No, the Penguins first mistake and path away from the Stanley Cup, ironically, involves the goalie who hoisted both the 2016 and 2017 Stanley Cups as the starting goalie.

The Penguins viewed the choice between Matt Murray and Marc-Andre Fleury as a no-lose decision, so they chose the younger and cheaper Murray. Penguins GM Jim Rutherford paid the Vegas Golden Knights a second-round choice to select Fleury.

Marc-Andre Fleury

Fleury stood on his head in the 2017 playoffs to get the Pittsburgh Penguins to the Stanley Cup doorstep. Then in 2018, he bedeviled the Western Conference and stole the Western Conference Final from the Winnipeg Jets. As PHN has reviewed game stories and columns from the 2017 run and the 2018 playoffs for republishing during this coronavirus pause, we kept running across the same theme.

In 2017, we termed the Penguins Round Two win over the Washington Capitals as theft, and wrote, “Fleury stole two games in the series.” In this case, it’s not hindsight. PHN was one of a few left on the Fleury hill, long after a vast majority sided with the Penguins coming decision.

During 2018 and 2019, the Penguins sorely missed Fleury and his locker room presence. Fleury was the Penguins spirit. In December 2017, even Murray admitted he missed Fleury. 

It’s not a coincidence. The team has endured some very dark stretches since Fleury departed. In each of the last two seasons, there have been extended periods in which the locker room was, at best, downtrodden.

And Vegas rode Fleury to the 2018 Stanley Cup Final. Winnipeg star center Mark Scheifele may still have nightmares about Fleury and the number of times Fleury robbed him of sure goals in the 2018 Western Conference Final. Just as Fleury did in the 2017 Round Two, he also stole the 2018 Western Conference Final.

It’s not a knock on Matt Murray, but Fleury has been a much better goalie over the past three seasons. Count this as mistake No. 1.

More Offseason Changes

The 2017 offseason was a minefield for the Pittsburgh Penguins. Not only did the two-time defending Stanley Cup champions lose part of their chemistry, but Rutherford also allowed defenseman Trevor Daley to bolt via free agency, and signed Matt Hunwick to replace him. The difference on payday was only about $900,000, but the gap on the ice was enormous.

“They want guys that are able to move their feet and move the puck,” Hunwick said on July 1, 2017.

By late winter, Sullivan banished Hunwick to the press box. In the summer, the Rutherford had little choice but to package Conor Sheary with Hunwick so the Penguins could shed Hunwick’s contract.

More than enough fans grimaced at the Hunwick signing. The defenseman didn’t always stick in the NHL during his previous stop in Colorado.

Rutherford also fumbled for a third-line center. Greg McKegg? With all due respect to McKegg, that was asking far too much. Riley Sheahan was next. The Penguins didn’t spend much to get Sheahan from Detroit, but he also was a dud.

“I think it’s important now that we don’t panic and go after somebody just to say we got a center, I’ve talked to (Sullivan) about this,” Rutherford said. at the time. “He says, ‘As long as I’ve got my two big guys healthy, I can work around anything early in the season.’ ”

Sheahan made just over $2 million. The Penguins missed on blood and guts free-agent center Brian Boyle, who signed a two-year deal with New Jersey for about $2.5 million annually. Injuries slowed Boyle in the second year of the contract, but for the 2018 Stanley Cup run, more leadership and a hard nose would have gone a long way.

Or, the Penguins could have aimed higher than a reclamation project like Sheahan, who was goalless for 81 games in the previous season.

If the Penguins were satisfied with Boyle, perhaps the Derick Brassard deal doesn’t happen. So–is that a good thing or bad thing long term?

Ian Cole

This one doesn’t hang on Jim Rutherford. This one goes on Penguins head coach Mike Sullivan, who otherwise has a strong track record. The Ian Cole situation didn’t make sense to anyone, except perhaps he and Sullivan.

Since Cole departed the Pittsburgh Penguins lineup in the spring of 2018, the Penguins have juggled and searched for the same stability he brought. Cole was physical with more than adequate puck movement. He skated well enough to keep up with the Penguins fast-paced game, and he did some of the dirty work in front of the Penguins net.

Cole performed the jobs Jack Johnson has recently been tasked with, including anchoring the left side with Justin Schultz. With respect to Johnson, Cole did more, and the Penguins haven’t yet entirely replaced him, nearly two seasons on.

Colorado happily snapped up Ian Cole in free agency during the summer of 2018. Cole signed a three-year, $12.75 million deal.

Phil Kessel

Phil Kessel asked for numerous trades from the Pittsburgh Penguins. PHN isn’t sure when the requests began, but we do know he made himself available at least during the 2018-19 season, if not sooner.

The Penguins coaches and GM tried to make the best of the situation. Rutheford should have traded him in the summer of 2018.

Kessel took up a lot of salary cap space for two full seasons as the situation soured. His value peaked in the summer of 2017 when the first rumblings of unhappiness emerged. Even during the 2017 Stanley Cup run, there was some friction building. We’ll give Rutherford and Sullivan a pass for not pulling the ripcord in 2017, but not for 2018, or the 2018-19 season.

Kessel’s value continued to fall after the second Stanley Cup. By last summer, there were few takers, and Kessel had time to arrange his no-trade list to call his shot.

Total Cap Savings

A restrictive salary cap situation motivated the Penguins and Rutherford to find every nickel. However, the replacement cost of Fleury, Cole, a third-line center, and Daley only saved the Penguins somewhere between $3.7-4.2 million. Or about the cost of Olli Maatta.

It’s been a long detour for the Penguins to cycle back to full both full strength and full speed. It seems the Penguins are close to full power again. The mistakes have been corrected. Sheahan became Brassard became Bjugstad and McCann. Jason Zucker is in, Kessel is out.

ending your point of view, this has been an unnecessary detour or a very short rebuild. Regardless, the current Penguins team, whenever hockey resumes, is probably the best team since 2017.