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PHN Blog: Shhhh, Rutherford’s Comments are Adding to the Fire



Jim Rutherford Pittsburgh Penguins GM

Perhaps this summer Pittsburgh Penguins GM Jim Rutherford should be less candid or less blunt. Just this once. Right now, it’s not helping.

For my early fans when I returned to Pittsburgh and finally had a small foothold in the local media scene beginning in 2014, you may recall I strongly defended the hiring of Pittsburgh Penguins GM Jim Rutherford, and his performance. While the internet howled and screamed, after years in this crazy sport I knew Rutherford. He was an occasional guest on my radio shows and didn’t mind chirping me on at least one occasion. He built a Stanley Cup team in Carolina and one other which won the Eastern Conference but he also lost on a couple of gambles. He was a solid GM but found himself in a bad situation and fledgling market which couldn’t attract free agents without the stench of overpaying.

In the last five years, I have criticized his job performance only on one previous situation.

The last time I criticized Rutherford’s performance with real negativity was the summer of 2017 when the Penguins considered third line center replacements for Nick Bonino. I knew then, as I know now, how important that situation was to the lineup. Greg McKegg and Riley Sheahan were the choices. Yoi and double yoi. Otherwise, I’ve been able to follow the Penguins GM’s logic and the process. While not every move was my cup of tea, they also didn’t warrant many harsh critiques either (cue the Jack Johnson zealots. The Twitter temper tantrums have become amusing though).

This summer, Rutherford appears intent on stoking the fire of uncertainty.

Just as he quelled Evgeni Malkin rumors with honest comments to our colleague Josh Yohe in the Athletic, he ripped open the potential for massive upheaval and trades just a couple of days later. While a Malkin trade seems only remotely possible, a Kris Letang deal has persisted on the fringe of the rumor mill for years.

So, just a few days after protecting two of his big three, Rutherford admitted to 93-7 the Fan, he wasn’t actively shopping the pair but he would listen to offers.

That’s GM speak for, “Go ahead, make me an offer.”

Now, cue the anti-Kris Letang crowd. It’s been a lonely couple of years since St. Marc-Andre Fleury left and his detractors couldn’t credibly pile on Matt Murray after singing his praises like the Mormon Tabernacle Choir, so…Kris Letang, you’re up! You suck–just ask them.

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But, I digress.

The Penguins will not be able to upgrade Kris Letang at anything close to his $7.25 million salary. I cringe at what Penguins fans would do to Norris Trophy nominee Brent Burns who plays a riskier game than Letang and is more loose with the puck. Why do Penguins fans hammer Letang for turnovers, and a high-risk game when it yields nearly a point per game, yet dance around the image of Phil Kessel and his defensive indifference like a golden calf?

But, I digress again.

Rutherford fed the beast of negativity with just one line. Within hours, it was spread around the blogs, newspapers and chat boards. And rightly so. Of course, every GM will listen to offers on all players. ALL PLAYERS. I doubt GMs treat phone calls from other GMs like a robocall about your credit card debt.

Doubling the error is Letang’s media sensitivity. He hears and reads a lot of it. Or at least he used to.

So, a locker room which struggled to gel, and a team which Rutherford flatly said never came together as a team, will deal with stars who were put out on the clothesline by their organization.

Yeah, that won’t help.

Even on a smaller scale, Rutherford poured gasoline on the Jack Johnson fire. The fan negativity is growing as unhappiness gets redirected towards him and the volume gets so loud that more and more simply accept Johnson’s unsuitability as fact. Instead of maintaining his anger or resistance to that idea, Rutherford told the radio station, “It was Maatta or Johnson.”

Oh great. Now those same unhinged fans who are recruiting more have ammunition. Johnson will be seen as almost being dumped and how many million more times will we hear, “they should have traded Johnson, not Maatta!”. And Rutherford will be seen as not dumping him but leaving him to twist in the wind.

There are other ways to let GMs know Malkin or Letang could be available. There are the in-person GM meetings. He may ask rival GMS about their star players then not recoil at the ask. The ratio of conversations on a daily basis which we never hear about probably ranges close to 90%.

And if the general manager’s willingness to listen on Malkin or Letang is discovered, the worst that could happen are media reports. The exact same reports we have now.

Irritated or anxious players generally don’t create a great room. If Rutherford wants his team to become close-knit again, he will play a role. For the first and only time, this time, Rutherford should not be so honest.

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Pittsburgh Hockey Now owner, formerly 93.7 The Fan, Sportsnet Hockey Tonight. Catch Dan tweeting @theDanKingerski and the official @pghhockeynow account.

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  1. RobertU

    June 20, 2019 at 8:12 am

    Maybe he’s trying to get their attention. Given the remarks Letang made earlier this offseason about everything being fine as-is, it seems the locker room issues aren’t going to get better without shaking up some of these guys. And maybe this is a way to say to them that ownership isn’t going to protect them anymore. Obviously all speculation. Moving Hagelin didn’t work. Nor did moving Brassard. I don’t care at this point if it’s Malkin, Kessel, or Letang, but one or more of them needs to be gone before the end of the year for this team to lose the sense of entitlement. Otherwise it’s more of the same. Verbally putting them on notice might be a precursor to making some moves, if they don’t seem to get the message.

  2. Keith Thomas

    June 20, 2019 at 8:36 am

    As I stated previously, I think that JR has had a schizophrenic off season that sends mixed messages regularly. Perhaps this is done to keep a lot of people guessing and off-balance as well as ill at ease with the surroundings. First it was Malkin rumors then Kessel proposed trade and then the next thing you hear is that both will be on the roster come October. A wild swing of polarizing messages. Now Letang. You are correct that Letang would be horribly difficult to replace at his friendly contract numbers.

    Perhaps it stems from JR’s frustration to fine tune the roster and finds himself with little latitude due to the NMC/NTC of three players. Let’s face it, things were going well before there was a player insurrection of sorts. Inevitably, this put JR in a very difficult position. The historic solution was to fire the coach – but now, I don’t know if that is the most viable solution. MS is a fine coach that would be very difficult to replace (just look at the coaching carousel in the NHL). To your point Dan, much of this could have been left off the public air-waives but I don’t know if it would have reversed the pressure that has been thrust upon JR. To a certain extent he has his hands tied in multiple knots with little latitude to get out due to contractual clauses. Perhaps players need to share the burden of finding solutions by broadening their options for trade possibilities if they disagree with the HC to the extent they do. Bottom line is, it is hard to imagine a scenario where this toothpaste is able to get back in the tube without a royal mess. It normally doesn’t work…… but let’s be real, JR is not the only culprit in this hot mess.

  3. joe

    June 20, 2019 at 9:40 am

    As much as I agree with everything you wrote,I can understand JR saying what he said .But he did do this the wrong way ,I think going into the locker room and holding players accountable face to face helps way more then saying shit to reporters .Especially when reporters agendas ( not all ) want to spin stories a bs to get readers. GENO played uninspired hockey this year ,some would say lazy as was the case with Phil ,but these are guys who maybe could be used some backing from the GM not being tossed to the wolfs, thank God they have t been traded because no one they get will fill none of these guys skates,I was reading Rust is next on the chopping block for a kid from the Oilers who needs a fresh start. Rust is another player who never gets the credit he deserves and plays a huge part to the speed game we ve turned away from,I really hope this year starts off fresh and guys get off to a good start,we are lucky to have all these players mentioned and if they get on the same page with the coach and GM the sky is the limit.

  4. Dean

    June 20, 2019 at 9:54 am

    I do agree trading Malkin or Letang would be a mistake under almost any circumstance, however evident by the disengaged and rebellious performance of Malkin and Kessel (not Letang) something has to be done. I am not sure why he would lump Letang with Malkin and Kessel, I don’t think Letang deserves that. I also agree replacing Letang would also be almost impossible.

    Thinking about the premise of your article that JR is making a mistake with his rhetoric on making Malkin and Letang available for trade is bad for team chemistry, it may indicate how bad the locker room was this spring. With athletes at this level, not sure threats matter too much when you are making $9.5M and $8M(Kessel). The better tactic may be to try to appease them as much as you can and overcome their weaknesses with line-up changes.

    FYI, disagreeing with you on JJ doesn’t make someone unhinged. You seem to miss (ignore) what many are saying. The base question is for $3.25M a year or less are there better LD’s that would improve the team? For example, if you could have Darnel Nurse ($3.2M per year) 24.3 years old or JJ ($3.25M per year) 32.6 years old, who would make the team better? Or; If you had a choice of Carl Dahlstrom ($850K per year) 24.3 years old or JJ. You save $2.4M, you have a young developing player, and I would argue that the performance difference at worst would be negligible.

    • Keith Thomas

      June 20, 2019 at 12:39 pm

      You just don’t “Go get” players like Nurse or Dahlstrom without paying dearly for them. JJ was obtained on the FA market so nothing was given up for him. A more fair comparison was who was available that year on the FA market who was comparable? No much. It is a grossly unfair comparison especially in light of the fact that the Pens do not have the assets or the picks to go get younger player of their caliber (you will pay a premium)….. All teams have limitation and cap issues. Sure I think the term of the JJ contract was too rich but his AAV is comparable to other players with his skill sets.

      • Dean

        June 20, 2019 at 2:03 pm

        The point I’m trying to make is that it is not “unhinged” to think that there are better alternatives to JJ that would improve the pens D.

        Dalhstrom Schultz or Nurse Schultz would be a better pairing for the pens were just examples. The real cost will be to dump JJ.

        BTW, I would agree that the price would be high with Nurse.

        I do not agree with Dahlstrom. Chicago has a glut of young LD’s all 24/25 and will have to part with at least 1 or more of them. Dahlstrom, Koekkoek, and Forsling.

        Here is a package that could work for Nurse. Rust, JJ, and our 1st pick for Nurse and Puljujarvi. The oilers want to part Puljujarvi, who is a big question mark, they need offense and Rust would be a great fit for them. The price is high, but if we are win now it may be worth it. Nurse would also be a great partner for Addison when Schultz is gone.

        • Keith Thomas

          June 20, 2019 at 4:05 pm

          Well, all these are interesting propositions. While you believe JJ is a major problem, not everyone see him to be a central issue to what cause this team difficulty last season. I for one see a lack of buy in by 3 specific members of the team as a massive problem. Kessel, Malkin, and to a lesser extent Letang not buying in to the system of MS seems to be a far more challenging issue that has greater risk.

          In my view, until they address these central issues it really does not matter about JJ. Further, moving JJ really does nothing to address cap space of any real significance. Until the Malkin/Kessel insurrection is addressed one way or another really will have little impact on the team. JR sat on the sidelines last year hoping that issues would resolve themselves an the problems only compounded. It is like you have problems with your top players and many people are overly concerned about a 5/6 D-man. I simply does not make sense to me in the grand scheme of the Penguins squad. It is kinda like moving deck chairs around on the Titanic. Just my 2 cents.

          • Dean

            June 20, 2019 at 5:06 pm

            This is a chess game and you have to set the board for later. You make secondary changes while you wait for the opportunities to make bigger moves.

            I am not saying that the Pens don’t have other needs or bigger needs, however if you get a chance to fix a secondary need you make that move.

            We need to clear cap space and getting one of these younger guys would be great for the pens. Another LD that may fit is Hayden Fluery – the Hurricanes need a goalie and I believe have shown interest in Jarry in the past, they also need secondary scoring. They have said they want to move Fluery. He would be a great long-term fit at 2nd pair left D.

        • Hatrick Pornqvist

          June 20, 2019 at 4:53 pm

          The part of that trade that I don’t see happening is Nurse. He’s actually a great young Dman with a lot of potential. Ken Holland is known for having an incredible amount of patience, which I why I think Edmonton hired him, and I think he will take a pretty slow and cautious approach. Rust for Puljujarvi is straight up is a deal I can never see him making nor is Johnson for Nurse. Both of those are pretty one sided in terms of the fact the two penguins pretty much have known ceilings while the two oilers could be stars. I don’t think a 21st overall pick moves the needle nearly enough to offset that for a guy like Holland and that fan base would flip out. The same trade sans Nurse is probably more likely.

  5. John

    June 20, 2019 at 10:21 am

    Here’s why I would trade Letang. First, you can actually get something of value for him, unlike dumping Johnson for salary cap space. Secondly, he is not irreplaceable. So many in the media seem to think he is, but we’ve all seen it with our own eyes over the last several years. He’s had plenty of injuries, and missed plenty of games. The team still does fine without him in the lineup. I don’t have the skills to find the stats, but maybe someone could look up the team’s record without him in the lineup over the last 4 or 5 years. I’d bet it’s not that bad. I’ve seen this team win a Cup without him for the entire playoffs, when EVERYONE said it wasn’t possible. You won’t get as talented of a d-man in return, but you don’t need one. Upgrade your wingers with that trade. The defense is fine without him.

    • Ricardo58

      June 20, 2019 at 1:23 pm

      Well said! Agreed.

    • Eric

      June 21, 2019 at 1:57 am

      Amen… you are so right! If fact Letang is the most overrated player in the team and soooo replaceable! We saw it during the 2017 SC run and saw it again this year… He’s a defense that thinks is a winger, doesnt’t have any hockey IQ in terms on decision making, positioning, he’s taking tons of dumb penalties, is uncoachable and refuse to adapt his style of play to a system or to key moments in the game. We call that kind on player useless, selffish and not a team player at all… Pens don’t need that…

  6. Frank

    June 20, 2019 at 12:16 pm

    I have mixed emotions about the “open book” handling of player status by GMJR. It is funny, in a way, that if anyone of the rumored available players splits a finger nail the club clams up about the details and labels it an “upper body injury” but their contracts and future and status is spilled to every one who will listen.
    If you are a professional athlete, with very very rare exceptions, you should not be surprised that your talents are an asset to a franchise. And while some assets are more precious than others . . . every one of them has a price and can be had by any prospective buyer. Any GM that refuses to take a call to discuss any athlete should be fired. Making a solid deal is another thing. Further if I am a GM sitting in another NHL city, I would like to think I could pick up the phone and call any of my GM friends and inquire about a player. So if Rutherford takes those calls and has conversations at length I see that as part of his job. In the case of the current group of players, once you get by Crosby . . . at least to me . . . the rest can be had. Sure . . . the price for some is going to be very salty . . but what would you expect as a competing GM. For others, they can be had very easily. Of course do you really think there is a line for bottom 4th line forwards and 5th or 6th defensemen. And even is someone cannot live without Garret Wilson, what do you think is coming back in that deal.
    But I am not crazy about this openness of Rutherford with the media and player discussion. There has to be a little more decorum with this. You know . . .you may not like your sister-in-law . . . but I am not sure you want to fill out that discussion over Thanksgiving dinner with the family.
    I could live with Jim being more cautious about player movement, just as he is with “upper body injuries” but on the flip if you are going to jog around the ice, dancing to your own music . . well . . . maybe if you are ready to leave the party . .. then let me hold the door for you

  7. Matt Luda

    June 20, 2019 at 12:52 pm

    GMJR doesn’t want to break up the nucleus. He wants to win with it. This is his way to light a fire under the laggards. As a one-year-too-early-rather-than-one-year-too-late guy, I don’t like the stand-pat approach. Veterans rarely change much in their 30s. But I get his m.o. here. It’s called accountability.

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