CRANBERRY TOWNSHIP, Pa – Jim Rutherford wasn’t asked the question and didn’t have to respond. Rutherford instead reared back and fired a shot across his team’s bow. And kept firing. After initially saying he wanted to work through the raw emotions of the recently departed season, but as the final press conference of the season wound down, the Pittsburgh Penguins GM was winding up.
The Penguins may turn and face the change after their humbling Round One exit and four-game sweep by the New York Islanders but not because they have a list of free agents or undesirable. The Penguins general manager has real concerns born by watching his team play all season, the roller coaster of inconsistency and the final defeat in which the Penguins could not match the desire of their opponent.
Rutherford directly questioned his team’s commitment to each other and winning.
“In (2016 and 2017), we were a team,” Rutherford said with a hard emphasis on team. “We were a very tight-knit team, and I didn’t see that this year, almost from Day 1.”
It’s a harsh criticism to say a team never came together. However, Rutherford doubled down, and he went at the player’s heart and determination. Yes, really. He did.
“I didn’t see a point where guys came together as a team and I wonder if there’s too many guys content with where they are at in their careers after winning a couple of Stanley Cups and is that a signal where some of that has to be changed?”
Rolling through the Penguins roster, only a few players qualify as multiple Stanley Cup champions. Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin, and Kris Letang have won three. Forwards Phil Kessel, Patric Hornqvist, and Bryan Rust have also won a pair of championships. Defensemen Brian Dumoulin, Justin Schultz, and Olli Maatta have multiple Cups, too.
Kessel almost certainly makes the list, doesn’t he? It seems hard to put Hornqvist on any list which involved lack of intensity. Did Rutherford include Maatta who was decidedly less effective than he was last season? It’s unfair to include Schultz who missed most of the season and was still recovering from his fractured leg late in the season and Dumoulin was his steady, solid self.
And Dumoulin was playing with a partially torn PCL.
It doesn’t take Sherlock Holmes, House, or Inspector Clouseau to realize the two-three players about whom Rutherford was referring.
“There’s a bunch of things that were different between the Islanders and the Penguins and why the Islanders won four straight. They played the right way and were eager to win. They were determined. And the Penguins weren’t.”
So, Rutherford said Stanley Cups might have made some of his players content and his team wasn’t eager or determined. Even though Rutherford slow-walked any changes or decisions at the beginning of the press conference, there is no way to walk that back. Nor should he.
The Penguins eagle eye GM who knew the Penguins’ deck need to be shuffled before most fans and knew where to find speed before the NHL was hip to the Penguins hustle, is precisely right. New York pushed the Penguins and not enough Penguins pushed back. One good game, one bad game. One good shift, two bad shifts. The Penguins were outclassed by a team which did whatever they needed to do, and the Penguins did whatever they felt like doing.
“Our team played as a team in March. We had a tough schedule, we played a lot of games. We played the right way and we were tracking towards being a good playoff team,” Rutherford said. But the Penguins didn’t follow it up with a strong playoff or remotely resemble the team which played in March.
The Penguins locker room was never a dark place, even after Game 4 and being unceremoniously dumped out of the playoffs. After Game 2, Kris Letang told PHN the team felt they yed
The Penguins didn’t have that same fight which helped them stave off elimination in 2016 and 2017. They didn’t even show the same level of fight or disappointment which the exhausted crew showed in 2018.
The Penguins figuratively shrugged while several players including Sidney Crosby, Hornqvist, and Nick Bjugstad charged the net or did as much as they could. Individual efforts surpassed team efforts.
And so the Penguins will watch the rest of the playoffs and it sounds like the Penguins GM will be watching the phones.
“We have a lot of good players and players with good resumes. (We have) players who have won Stanley Cups. Players who have contributed big to that,” The Penguins GM said. “Depending what changes we decide to make, we have valuable assets to make some of those changes.”