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Rossi: We should have seen this coming with the Penguins

| Saturday, April 11, 2015, 11:03 p.m.
Buffalo Sabres defenseman Rasmus Ristolainen blocks the puck as Pittsburgh Penguins center Evgeni Malkin battles in front of Sabres goaltender Anders Lindback during the second period of an NHL hockey game Saturday, April 11, 2015, in Buffalo, N.Y. Pittsburgh won 2-0.
NHLI via Getty Images
The Sabres' Anders Lindback upends the Penguins' Sidney Crosby on Saturday, April 11, 2015, in Buffalo, N.Y.

BUFFALO, N.Y. — The longest-tenured Penguin, his hat backward and smile crooked, leaned against his dressing-room bench Friday night and contemplated The Collapse.

“I don't think we have lost so much since my rookie season,” goalie Marc-Andre Fleury said. “It's, like, what's going on, you know?”

What's gone on with the Penguins, who needed until the 82nd and final regular-season game Saturday to extend their streak of consecutive postseason appearances to nine, should not surprise anybody.

The Penguins, known throughout the NHL for excelling at message control, have spent the past 11 months sending mixed signals. That was evident at general manager Jim Rutherford's introductory news conference June 6.

“What ownership wants here is a complete change in direction,” Rutherford said. “One with the general manager, and one with the coach.”

Three weeks earlier, ownership said the next general manager would determine the fate of coach Dan Bylsma.

Rutherford had gone off script. The Penguins, a perceived model of stability, were about to go off the rails.

Plan failure

Before May and June, the Penguins had not conducted a GM or coaching search in nearly a decade.

It showed.

Ownership could not land its big fish — Pat Brisson (Sidney Crosby's NHL superagent) — in the immediate days after firing Ray Shero in May. The GM search, which included interviews with two former Shero hires in Jason Botterill and Tom Fitzgerald and broadcaster Pierre McGuire, ended with the hiring of Rutherford.

Rutherford had always impressed Penguins ownership at Board of Governors meetings, but that should not have been enough to ignore his track record with Carolina during the salary-cap era. Rutherford's Hurricanes had not qualified for the postseason in seven of nine seasons since the NHL instituted a cap, including the previous five.

The Penguins contended Rutherford was constrained by Carolina's budget. Upon his agreeing to a three-year contract, Rutherford was told he would report to CEO/president David Morehouse (not directly to owners as Shero had). He was afforded only one outside hire to his hockey operations staff.

Power failure

Scattered from Pittsburgh over the summer, franchise centers Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin expressed concern — between themselves and to members of their inner circle — about the Penguins' setup.

Message failure

The draft-day trade of James Neal infuriated many of his former Penguins teammates, but it especially perturbed close friends Crosby and Malkin. Neal, the franchise centers believed, had been made an unnecessary scapegoat for recent playoff flameouts.

Something else bothered Crosby and Malkin. Each took the “change in culture” reference — repeated publicly from the day Shero was fired — as a shot at their leadership. Crosby is the Penguins' captain. Malkin is his top alternate.

A plus for the Penguins is that Crosby and Malkin grew closer than ever. A negative, however, is they increasingly came to believe they're the only ones that have each other's back.

For Rutherford and Johnston, an intended fresh start turned into a turbulent transition by the time training camp opened in September.

And by then the Penguins already had blown a few moves, at least if viewed through the prism of the salary cap.

Roster failure

The return for Neal was wingers Patric Hornqvist and Nick Spaling. On paper, they filled immediate needs. Hornqvist was a legitimate top-six winger. Spaling was an upgrade for the oft-belittled bottom-six forwards.

On the books, the deal was a no-win for the Penguins. After a new two-year contract for Spaling, the Penguins added $1.45 million against the cap.

This was the first of a few moves that followed Rutherford living up to his lone-wolf reputation and not considering advice from staffers — all of whom better understood the Penguins' precarious cap situation. Other moves followed, notably the free agent additions of defenseman Christian Ehrhoff ($4 million) and goalie Thomas Greiss ($1 million) that staffers deemed luxuries.

The Penguins, the NHL's third-oldest team, had not become younger. Some of Shero's most easily questionable signings — defenseman Rob Scuderi and wingers Chris Kunitz and Pascal Dupuis — remained. Too much cap space was tied into too few players. That left the Penguins, as they had been the previous season, a couple of shorter-term injuries to key players from being in real trouble.

Rob Rossi is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. Reach him at rrossi@tribweb.com or via Twitter @RobRossi_Trib.

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