The Pittsburgh Penguins expected a return to being a Stanley Cup contender. Last summer, Penguins GM Jim Rutherford rejected overtures of change or overhaul and stood pat with his core group of players and direction.
The Penguins had a longer summer to rest, recuperate and clear the mental palette. After three long years which included the emotional tumult and organizational upheaval of the switch from Mike Johnston to Mike Sullivan, the 2016 Stanley Cup march, the very short summer for several of the Penguins cornerstone pieces in the 2016 World Cup of Hockey, and the 2017 Stanley Cup march, the Penguins had a chance to breathe in preparation for the 2018-19 season.
On paper, Rutherford’s offseason combined with rest should have launched a hungry and angry team.
At the start, the Penguins had the best center trio in the league with Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin and Derick Brassard. Evgeni Malkin had challenged for the Art Ross and Hart Trophies in the season prior and the Penguins expected Jake Guentzel to mature from his sophomore slump. Kris Letang was healthy and Rutherford only nibbled at the edges of his roster.
Put a pin in the Brassard problem. It was the Penguins first undoing.
The Penguins added depth on June 26 and dealt Conor Sheary and Matt Hunwick to Buffalo for draft picks, which is where we will begin the Penguins offseason. Then, last July, Rutherford signed free agents Jack Johnson, Derek Grant and Matt Cullen for the NHL roster, and signed Zach Trotman, Teddy Blueger, and Jimmy Hayes for NHL depth.
Rutherford inked defenseman Jamie Oleksiak to a three-year extension at a very affordable $2.1 million annual cap hit. The Penguins GM also handed two-year contracts to wingers Daniel Sprong and Dominik Simon, and a one-year deal to Riley Sheahan.
The Penguins expected their core to be ready and the depth including a glut of centers to provide head coach Mike Sullivan several options.
On paper, Rutherford had done a solid job even if the offseason didn’t include a splashy add. The Penguins offseason was defined by the keeping their splashy option: Phil Kessel.
Rutherford admitted he recognized very quickly the Penguins were a disjointed team and the core was stale. He dealt popular and speedy Carl Hagelin for Tanner Pearson, then finally ended the Daniel Sprong situation by dealing him for Marcus Pettersson.
(Rutherford later spun Pearson for defenseman Erik Gudbranson, then Brassard and Sheahan for Nick Bjugstad and Jared McCann. A deal which looks like an absolute steal but that will be in tomorrow’s final grade).
Rutherford also rewarded Jake Guentzel with a new five-year contract with a $6 million AAV in December and backup goalie Casey DeSmith earned an affordable three year deal.
Rutherford First-Half Grade: D+
Derick Brassard. The Penguins third line center told the Penguins he didn’t like or want to be a third line center last May, yet they kept him in hopes it would work. It didn’t.
Keeping Brassard was the Penguins great first-half undoing. If Rutherford didn’t feel his squad became a team, look no further than the Brassard situation. It wrecked the lineup and kept the Penguins from finding a rhythm.
Derek Grant never fit with the team and passed back-and-forth through waivers. Grant also blocked Teddy Blueger from the NHL (but that may have been a blessing as Blueger added a scoring touch in WBS).
The Penguins didn’t need to go through the Daniel Sprong situation, either. No veteran actually rolled his eyes when asked about Sprong or playing with Sprong, but a couple came close. Cullen did his best to help the young player but for several reasons mostly centered on Sprong, it was never going to work.
The GM believed in Daniel Sprong which created an awkward situation. Sullivan was saddled with a player who rarely showed NHL chops, certainly not a desire to play lower line duty. And Sprong was forced to prove himself NHL ready before being granted scoring line opportunities.
The Sprong debacle initially blocked Zach Aston-Reese from the NHL, and as it turned out Garrett Wilson, too. However, by going through the process, Pettersson became available. So, alls well that ends well.
The Hagelin trade was iffy at the time. It certainly didn’t yield equal results with Tanner Pearson, who was a bust. Pearson had just 14 points (9g, 5a) in 44 games and didn’t provide the puck retrieval or penalty killing prowess of Hagelin.
The Hagelin for Pearson trade would itself earn a D or F.
Rutherford’s ability to escape from Matt Hunwick and Conor Sheary was a deft move. Sheary would not have fit well with the Penguins push to hang onto pucks.
Cullen especially was wildly popular with the young players who he shepherded this season, including Aston-Reese and Garrett Wilson. This reporter watched Bryan Rust also seek out the wise sage advice of Cullen on several occasions. Cullen was the Penguins shutdown center, too. The Penguins eventually found a fourth line capable of offensive contribution with Sheahan–Cullen–Aston-Reese.
The Marcus Petterson trade was an absolute steal for the Penguins, too.
Simon produced 28 points (8g, 20) which vex fans but the playmaking winger created a lot of offense for the Penguins for only $750,000.
The Guentzel extension also looks like a bargain, too.
The extension to Jamie Oleksiak looked like a great deal but wasn’t. The new contract to Rust looked a bit steep but will be a fair price for a player able to score 20 goals per year while shuffling through the lineup.
Jack Johnson is a C+ defender making a C+ salary. At this point, social media is so thick with anger that this writer doesn’t expect any sunlight to penetrate it, but Johnson gave the Penguins a few much-needed layers including reliability and physicality in the defensive zone. Johnson also committed only 32 turnovers which places him well below the rest of the Penguins defense. Johnson’s point total and offense will need to improve.
After the acquisition of Pettersson, Johnson’s deep analytics greatly improved, too. Using the baseline metric of scoring chances, Johnson was about even. Interestingly, Johnson increased Justin Schultz’ numbers.
(Funny story, at a party Saturday, a reader approached me and whispered, “I actually like Jack Johnson but you’re not allowed to say that. We both laughed but the Twitter mob and blogosphere certainly gets aggressive. And the player has noticed).
Tomorrow–The Final Grade.