Pittsburgh Penguins GM Jim Rutherford isn’t one to parse language or talk in circles. The great thing about the Penguins general manager is his forthright honesty and willingness to share the truth with the public.
Rutherford chatted with selected media outlets on Wednesday morning about the NHL return, Jake Guentzel, additional injuries, and what he thinks of playing for the Stanley Cup in late summer.
“I like it. It’s not ideal. It’s not the traditional way, but nothing is these days,” Rutherford said. “The fact the players and owners wanted to play, figuring out a way to play, (that) we will do our best to complete this is important.”
We like it, too.
Rutherford understands the role sports play in the world and the leadership which sports can provide. On Tuesday, NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman laid out the details and situation for the 24-team NHL playoffs.
“Because our fans overwhelmingly wanted us (to finish the season),” Bettman said on Tuesday.
As part of the NHL return, the league will move to Phase 2 in early June. The phase includes opening team facilities for small group workouts with no more than six players and limited team staff. The NHL released the 29-page memo on Monday, which included players returning to each club’s home city and safety protocols.
When Phase 2 begins, as early as next week, participation is voluntary. Teams are responsible for players’ relocation back to the club’s city at team expense, but player participation is strictly voluntary.
Rutherford does expect most players to return, and Pittsburgh Hockey Now can confirm players are excitedly making plans.
“I understand why people would be concerned. We’ve been fortunate to this point with our numbers in Pittsburgh,” the Penguins GM said. “Hopefully, we can keep it that way. We’re not a hotspot. Most guys have homes here and are comfortable coming back here.”
Based on timelines laid out by the NHL memo and Commissioner Gary Bettman, the voluntary workouts in Phase 2 could last for several weeks. Phase 3, which is a training camp, will not open before July 1.
Phase 4 includes teams reporting to hub cities to begin play, likely two weeks or slightly longer after Phase 3 begins.
As part of Phase 4 and the 24-team NHL playoffs, the Pittsburgh Penguins will face the Montreal Canadiens in the qualifying round. The Penguins had the fifth-best record in the Eastern Conference, but only the top four teams received byes into Round One. So, the fifth-seeded Penguins will play the 12th seeded Montreal Canadiens, as Rutherford acknowledged the opportunity but also the disappointment at being included in the Qualifying Round.
“The league and players did a good job under these circumstances. There’s a lot of different things that go into these decisions,” Rutherford said. “From our point of view, we had the 7th best record in the league at shutdown … We were hoping to not play-in.”
Teams that lose in the Qualifying Round will be eligible for the NHL Draft Lottery.
Serious injuries dogged the Penguins all season, including when Penguins 40-goal winger Jake Guentzel suffered what was then a season-ending shoulder injury. However, the delayed playoffs possibly mean Guentzel will be available.
“We’re optimistic that (Guentzel) will be available to play,” Rutherford said. “(Dominik) Simon is out. (Nick) Bjugstad had a setback and had surgery (Tuesday). He won’t be available for the rest of the season. We feel good about the depth of our team.”
Bjugstad played only 10 games this season. His absence leaves little doubt that Jared McCann will be the Penguins third-line center in the 24-team tournament. Because of significant injuries to Evgeni Malkin, Bjugstad, then Sidney Crosby, McCann played center for most of the regular season.
In 66 games, he had 14 goals and 21 assists while functioning mostly as a second or third-line center.
“We’re at a point to talking about hockey again. It’s an exciting time. We’re hoping everything that’s been put together, all the protocols, can keep everybody safe and get our games going again,” Rutherford said.