Jim Rutherford picked a fine time to leave the Pittsburgh Penguins. Looming issues born of decisions gone awry and missed opportunities threaten to close the championship window of the Sidney Crosby era permanently.
The full story may come out as to why Rutherford chose to leave the team that he constructed after the beginning of the season, but at best, it’s an odd look.
Moving forward, Penguins president David Morehouse confirmed interim-GM Patrik Allvin would have full authority, but interestingly, “he’ll have Mario Lemieux as a backup.”
If the Penguins want a Stanley Cup this season, time is of the essence. A GM merely keeping the set warm is yet another time waste. If Allvin isn’t the guy, do the Penguins want Allvin making significant moves?
As constructed, the Pittsburgh Penguins had questions and strengths before the first whistle of training camp on Jan. 4. Before the offseason was days old, Rutherford promised changes with speed and youth additions. The now-former GM delivered on his literal promises by immediately acquiring speedy power forward Kasperi Kapanen, but the unknowns and gambles of the offseason can only be answered by live fire within the real NHL season.
And now Rutherford has checked out, but the gambles and team needs remain.
Rutherford’s tenure with the Penguins will forever be successful. Back-to-Back Stanley Cups and the resurrection of a franchise that was reveling in wasted potential and infighting.
Rob Scuderi became Trevor Daley. Robert Bortuzzo became Ian Cole. David Perron became Carl Hagelin, and young Kasperi Kapanen became two-time Stanley Cup champion, Phil Kessel.
“His legacy is the two Stanley Cup banners in the rafters,” Penguins president David Morehouse said on Wednesday.
But that’s not the full story.
Rutherford’s Penguins tenure hit an iceberg in 2018. I remember absorbing a great deal of dissent when I sat behind a microphone at 93-7 the Fan in 2014. Having covered Rutherford for several years prior, I knew his timber, but dissent is a kind word. Actually, I knew nothing because I defended the Penguins’ decision to hire Rutherford.
The ironic part was when I began raising red flags in 2018 after two Stanley Cups. I again knew nothing. That’s the relationship you and I have, and it makes life interesting, doesn’t it?
But Rutherford’s winning streak ended in 2017-18. The third line center role, which was well filled by Nick Bonino, was suddenly a revolving door of players, who were predictably not up to the task.
Pittsburgh Penguins Revolving Door 3C:
Greg McKegg, Riley Sheahan, Derick Brassard, Nick Bjugstad, Jared McCann, and now Mark Jankowski inhabited that pivotal pivot behind Sidney Crosby Evgeni Malkin.
Bjugstad was a $4 million option who could have worked except for the salary and serious injuries that cost him most of last season. Bad luck seems to follow bad decisions.
The cost to acquire players like Sheahan and Jankowski was not crippling, but circling those players on the whiteboard cost the Penguins valuable time and missed opportunities.
The cost of Brassard was indeed pocket-emptying, and it could have worked, but no one asked the primary question: Was Brassard OK with being a third-line center? The answer was a firm NO, and thus the assets (a first-round pick, a third-rounder, goalie prospect Filip Gustavsson, Ryan Reaves, and Ian Cole) were essentially wasted.
This offseason, Rutherford passed on bonafide third-line centers after he signed Jankowski. Erik Haula and Carl Soderberg slipped past. Jankowski has already been demoted to fourth-line center.
Wouldn’t Haula look good between Jared McCann and Brandon Tanev? Or Zucker and Tanev?
The Penguins third line has mostly been a black hole for three seasons since the last silver chalice made it’s way to the river.
2. The Pittsburgh Penguins NEED Blueline Help (Read: Trade)
An even bigger problem that Rutherford left behind is on the Penguins blueline. There’s a lot of money spent and not a lot of production. The Penguins will be paying Jack Johnson until 2026, and Mike Matheson’s early play looked far too reminiscent of his troublesome play in Florida.
Oh, by the way, Kris Letang is 33-years-old, and you don’t see many players in their mid-30’s play his dynamic style of play.
Beginning next season, Rutherford lined up five defensemen who will make $4 million or more. It’s one of the most expensive defensive corps in the NHL, yet neither one of the most productive nor most effective.
One of Rutherford’s most controversial trades was dealing Patric Hornqvist for the inconsistent Matheson. The Penguins not only lost energy without Hornqvist, but they also gained an expensive defenseman with an unsteady game.
Matheson didn’t dispel the knocks against him in the first two games before being injured by a borderline dirty hit from Nicolas Aube-Kubel in Philadelphia.
Penguins coaches Mike Sullivan, and Todd Reirden chose to balance the blueline by putting LHD Matheson with John Marino on the second pairing, but Matheson had a few goals on his hands before the season was 120 minutes old.
Fellow newcomer Cody Ceci has been solid, but a few mistakes and a recently tarnished reputation also raise questions. Chad Ruhwedel replaced Ceci until Marcus Pettersson was injured in the third game of the season.
P-O Joseph, 21, was thrust into the lineup and has been very good in sheltered minutes. Though if you’re keeping score that’s two new defense pairings, three defensemen who have been scratched or weren’t part of the opening night lineup, and one defender (John Marino) playing out of position.
The Penguins need help.
By multiple accounts, Rutherford was swimming in the NHL trade waters looking for a defenseman. Still, pending Matheson’s return, Pettersson’s status, and Joseph’s continued positive performance, the front office led by Allvin may be tempted to let it play out.
Based on all available data, the view from these seats posits that would be a mistake, but also the likely outcome.
Because of the defense cost, including Matheson, and dead money, the Penguins only have about $1.3 million in salary cap space, which translates to about $600,000 in useable space.
Before you form a Twitter mob and toss Malkin overboard, is he still the player who scored 74 points in 55 games last season. His hands are there, but there is something amiss with Malkin.
His skating is below typical grade. And, his decision making has been some of the worst of his career.
What if the pandemic prevented Malkin from getting into top shape, unlike last season when he was in rare form. What if Malkin hit the final chapter much sooner than anyone expected?
Malkin’s season is off to a terrible start, and he’s not yet scored an even-strength goal in six games. In fact, he’s not been close.
Malkin looks old. He looks slow. The question is — IS he old and slow?
The Penguins 34-year-old superstar trained like an animal during the last offseason to erase a subpar season in 2019-19.
What if things spiral?
The Pittsburgh Penguins are not a mess. As-Is, they’re a potential playoff team. With some help, perhaps they could be more. But, things could also go sideways and do so in a very big way, too.
Rutherford’s timing was curious. He will not finish what he started but rather force someone else to jump onto his moving train. If Matheson doesn’t work, the Penguins will have a lot of money tied up for a long time. If Jankowski doesn’t work, the Penguins will again be shopping for a 3c. Again. All in addition to patching other holes as they’re identified.
In the meantime, everyone hopes that the train stays on the tracks until the conductor has his (or her) hands on the controls.