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Penguins' woes in Metropolitan Division trouble GM Rutherford

| Wednesday, Feb. 18, 2015, 12:00 p.m.
Chaz Palla | Trib Total Media
Penguins general manager Jim Rutherford speaks in September 2014 at Consol Energy Center.
Chaz Palla | Trib Total Media
The Penguins' Evgeni Malkin plays against the Lightning, Friday, Jan. 2, 2015 at Consol Enrgy Center.

With less than two weeks until the NHL trade deadline, Penguins general manager Jim Rutherford has come to a few conclusions.

The Penguins are not good enough against Metropolitan Division opponents. Whether it's because of line matching or inconsistency from other players, Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin have been shut down at times. And the Penguins don't have a sufficient answer for when that happens.

“We're getting into the period where names are going to surface and teams are going to get serious,” Rutherford told Trib Total Media. “If it's a guy who's capable of scoring a big goal, I would like to get that guy because if Sid and Geno get shut down, we need to be able to win games with our third and fourth lines.”

The Penguins are 7-10-4 against division opponents, 2-6-2 in their past 10 against them and 2-7-2 against possible playoff opponents in the Islanders, Rangers and Capitals. They've been outscored 64-46 in 21 games but 41-20 by the Islanders, Rangers and Capitals.

Crosby has six goals and seven assists over 20 division games. He has 13 goals and 32 assists in the 33 games he has played outside the Metropolitan. That's a points-per-game average of 0.65 inside versus 1.22 outside the division.

Malkin has endured the same problems as teams load up to stop the Penguins' franchise centers. He has six goals and nine assists in 19 division games or 0.79 points per game. That gives him 15 goals, 38 points and a 1.15 points-per-game average outside the division.

“That's what teams try to do to us: They try to shut (Crosby and Malkin) guys down,” Rutherford said. “If they shut those guys down, and you don't have enough balance on your third and fourth line where you can score periodically, then you can't win.”

How will that happen? Well, there are a few parts.

• First, Rutherford is pleased with how his current group of defensemen has been playing, and the return of Christian Ehrhoff will only help.

Rookie Derrick Pouliot “continues to progress nicely.” Rutherford also believes Robert Bortuzzo's game has improved of late.

“Based on the guys who are out there on defense, I'm not sure that we're getting somebody who can necessarily do a better job than what we have — if we're healthy,” Rutherford said.

• There remains a concern with the Penguins' front office about Steve Downie's penchant for taking third-period penalties. Downie also is a pending unrestricted free agent who carries a $1 million cap hit — one of the bigger numbers among the team's bottom-six forwards.

Mathematically and logistically, that could squeeze Downie out of a job.

• In acquiring forward help, Rutherford remains steadfast in not wanting to part with the organization's defense prospects: Pouliot, Scott Harrington and Brian Dumoulin.

No deals are imminent, Rutherford said, and a large part will hinge on what happens when Ehrhoff returns. But there's no hiding the fact that getting more scoring punch from the group of top-nine forwards is a priority — not necessarily the defensemen many had the Penguins pegged to.

But coach Mike Johnston also isn't letting Crosby and Malkin off the hook, even if six of the Penguins' 46 divisional goals have been scored by players currently cast in bottom-six roles.

“The guys around them have to help and alleviate some of that pressure,” Johnston said. “It's also the responsibility of those players now. It's a big challenge. They have to accept the challenge.”

Jason Mackey is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. Reach him at jmackey@tribweb.com or via Twitter @Mackey_Trib.

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