A pair of Stanley Cups and a handful of success stories highlight former Pittsburgh Penguins GM Jim Rutherford’s tenure in Pittsburgh from 2014 to 2021. Dishing Rob Scuderi for Trevor Daley, David Perron for Carl Hagelin, and Robert Bortuzzo for Ian Cole made Rutherford a genius and a Stanley Cup winner, again, and again.
While the Penguins sort through a full boat of candidates for their vacant GM position, there is a mixed bag of good and bad that awaits the next occupant of that seat. The good is very good, but the bad will cling to the job like a popcorn kernel stuck between their teeth and gums.
A pair of candidates refused the interview. Montreal Canadiens assistant GM Scott Mellanby declined, as did New York Rangers AGM Chris Drury. Both were strong candidates for the Penguins job. Interestingly, a third assistant GM, Jason Botterill, was denied permission to interview by the expansion Seattle Kraken, who won’t start play for another eight months.
There are some whispers about the Penguins job and the unattractive aspects that the new general manager must accept, but we will leave innuendo and speculation to the side.
3 Reasons the Pittsburgh Penguins Job is Attractive
1. Sidney Crosby.
Guaranteed leadership in the locker room. Guaranteed great player on the ice. The face of hockey almost assuredly gives the next GM a chance to win.
Crosby is 33-years-old and won’t be around forever, maybe. The next GM will have a chance to build a team but have Crosby as an integrating and stabilizing force for the foreseeable future.
Having Crosby is like building a business with a warehouse already full of product.
2. Signed Talent
The Penguins do not have a pending exodus of talent via free agency.
Per team president David Morehouse, the Penguins are still in win-now mode. A quick look at the Penguins’ top-six includes talented forwards signed for several more years. Beyond Crosby and Evgeni Malkin, Jake Guentzel, Bryan Rust, Jason Zucker, and Kasperi Kapanen have multiple years remaining on their deals.
The Penguins defense is similar. In addition to Kris Letang, who has two one year, Brian Dumoulin, John Marino, Marcus Pettersson, and Mike Matheson have several or more years on their deals, too. Rookie P-O Joseph will be under team control for six more seasons as an RFA.
3. Organization Stability
The Pittsburgh Penguins have no problem attracting fans, free agents and have an ownership group widely held in high regard.
A GM is unlikely to be pressured to make the playoffs at the expense of the immediate future, just so the team has money to pay bills. The Pittsburgh Penguins are a high-profile franchise with the tools and resources to remain competitive. They are a “cap-team” able to spend to the salary cap limit or beyond (due to injuries).
Not every franchise can boast those resources.
3 Reasons Why the Pittsburgh Penguins Job is Unattractive
1. Win Now?
The organization wants to win another Stanley Cup. However, nothing in the last two years or the start of this season says the team is close enough to win.
Injuries, ineffectiveness, and debatable roster construction put the Penguins in the mid-pack this season, and they’ve been brusquely removed from the NHL postseason in each of the last two seasons. They’ve won just one postseason game since 2018.
It is believed the organization, from the top down, has decided the Penguins core (Crosby, Malkin, Letang) should spend the remainder of their careers in Pittsburgh.
Many will view the end of the Penguins’ run as far closer than the organization wants to admit. And constraints on personnel decisions isn’t a good starting point for a new GM with big ideas who wants to start immediately.
Not every player locked up is a keeper, but moving salary is a laborious chore in the current environment. More often than not, trades have to be “dollar-in, dollar-out” deals.
Moving an established player with a healthy contract for a good pick and prospect isn’t so easy in the flat-cap era. Only a few teams have the cap space, and fewer still desire to give up part of their future, which is still emerging.
There is little wiggle room for a new GM to change the trajectory of the Penguins fortunes without a blockbuster deal.
And, not all of the Pittsburgh Penguins contracts will be good ones. The Mike Matheson contract with a $4.8 AAV for five more seasons could be a prime example if the Penguins don’t get the defenseman back on the right track. Marcus Pettersson may be a $4 million third-pairing d-man.
And there is little to no money to fortify the bottom six. Championship teams usually have stout third and fourth lines. The Penguins are struggling to fill the middle of their bottom lines. Teddy Blueger and Brandon Tanev showed prowess as powerful fourth-liners but haven’t yet established themselves as a superior third line.
3. No Immediate Future
The Pittsburgh Penguins have not drafted a player who has reached the NHL level since 2015, and neither of those players are still with the organization (Daniel Sprong, Dominik Simon).
The Penguins prospect list has subsisted on college free agents and hope. WIth P-O Joseph in the NHL, the Penguins’ legitimate prospect list consists of two: Sam Poulin and Nathan Legare, who were both 2019 draft picks.
At the 2020 NHL Draft, the Penguins snagged a pair of goalies in the second round (Joel Blomqvist) and third-round (Calle Clang), but neither were starters for their country in the most recent World Junior Championships. Prospect goalies can take five years to reach the NHL level, if ever.
The Penguins also have only a few picks in the 2021 NHL Draft. They have a second-rounder, a fifth, and a seventh.
Not exactly a bumper crop in waiting, is it?
So, a new GM will have limitations, expectations, and full resources that have already been allocated.
A patient general manager will be able to ride out the next couple of years and then get to work.