Pittsburgh Penguins GM Jim Rutherford was a genius when his moves worked and the Penguins became the first team in the salary cap era to repeat as Stanley Cup champions. He had a promising opening summer in 2014 with the acquisition of Patric Hornqvist and good results the following year but had shaky results in the past two summers. A Penguins trade or free agent signings which lie ahead for Rutherford will not define a season, they will define the Penguins future and partially define Rutherford’s legacy.
The Penguins first back-to-back championships with Mario Lemieux and Jaromir Jagr, including the Ron Francis and Rick Tocchet acquisitions, shine brightly on former GM Craig Patrick but the Penguins struggles without resources, the Jagr trade and the free agency failures of 2005 are also attached to Patrick’ legacy.
Rutherford faces a defining summer with the looming Phil Kessel trade and the task of re-tooling what should be a Stanley Cup contender with the best 1-2 center punch in the league. The team the Penguins ice in October will be different than the one which meekly fell to the New York Islanders. It certainly needs to be.
The Penguins cannot afford another lackluster summer. Nor can Rutherford afford a third bad summer in a row.
The summer of 2017 was pivotal as the Penguins failed to address the loss of third line center Nick Bonino, who left via free agency. The closest the Penguins came to fill that need was the October trade for Riley Sheahan, who never filled that role well.
The Penguins signed defenseman Matt Hunwick to replace Trevor Daley. They also dealt prospect Oskar Sundqvist and their first round pick to St. Louis for Ryan Reaves and a second round pick. As of Saturday when the club non-tendered Zachary Lauzon, the Penguins have nothing to show for that trade. That deal is widely panned by those who reject the physical element of hockey but the results were poor, nonetheless.
That poor summer of 2017 led to the ill-fated Derick Brassard trade in Feb. 2018. Do we need to rehash that any further?
The summer of 2018 was a mixed bag as a large number of Penguins fans have been forced to whisper, “I thought Jack Johnson was fine.” The Penguins defense did not begin last summer on solid footing despite being one of the most expensive blue lines in all of hockey. Jamie Oleksiak was signed to a three-year deal but struggled again in his first full season with the Penguins and was dealt for only a fourth-round pick.
The great mistakes are the deals the Penguins did not make. They kept Brassard in the face of stated player opposition to his role. And the Penguins kept Kessel despite the seeds of discontent between player and coach beginning to grow. The writing was on the wall and some in the organization knew it.
Rutherford found his stride in December when he dealt Daniel Sprong for the much for more used Marcus Pettersson. On Feb. 1, he further course (or curse?) corrected by acquiring Jared McCann and Nick Bjugstad. Rutherford finished by dealing the very vanilla Tanner Pearson for surprising defenseman Erik Gudbranson.
The earliest offseason since Sidney Crosby’s rookie year is not off to a good start. Kessel nixed the trade to Minnesota, but the reported return of Jason Zucker was not overwhelming nor would have provided much salary cap relief.
The Penguins are not far away from being a Stanley Cup contender once again. The Boston Bruins are not significantly better, but Boston is willing to do at least one thing the Penguins were not.
The next step now lies with Rutherford. If he knocks it out of the park again, as he did in the 2015-16 season, the Penguins could quickly return to competitiveness. They could add more speed. Perhaps some finishing ability on the wings. Maybe a little more puck skills on the blue line.
Another step back will waste perhaps the last great year for the Penguins core. If it’s not the last great year, it’s close; the group doesn’t have many remaining. If Rutherford gets the Kessel trade wrong and it’s a bust like the Reaves trade became, the Penguins may find themselves in a hole which keeps them out of the playoffs.
Or, if he gets a few things right, the Penguins could chase another Cup. Or, three bad summers in a row could lead to even more significant organizational changes than searching for scoring wingers. It may be a make or a break summer for Rutherford.