GM Jim Rutherford to seek chemistry, hunger, not speed, as he reshapes Penguins roster
After the Pittsburgh Penguins ended a six-year championship drought by winning the Stanley Cup in back-to-back seasons in 2016-17, the generally accepted theory was that they did so with speed.
General manager Jim Rutherford acquired players like Carl Hagelin and Trevor Daley and the Penguins responded with an up-tempo attack that soon became the envy of the NHL.
With the benefit of two years of hindsight, though, something about those teams sticks out more in Rutherford’s mind than their skating ability.
They had chemistry and they were hungry.
Those were the elements that were missing when the Penguins were swept out of the first round of the playoffs by the New York Islanders earlier this week, Rutherford said.
“We were a very tight-knit team, and I didn’t see that this year, almost from day one,” Rutherford said at a season-ending press conference Thursday afternoon in Cranberry. “I didn’t see a point where our guys came together as a team, and I wonder if it’s because there’s too many guys content with where they’re at in their careers after winning a couple of Stanley Cups. Is that a signal where some of that has to be changed where you’ve got that eagerness again?”
Rutherford said he wanted to let the emotion of the loss to the Islanders subside before he made any decisions about the future of the roster. He also said he wanted to receive input from ownership, the hockey ops department and coaching staff first.
But if Rutherford sticks to the idea that the Penguins have grown too content with their championship resumes, the changes he makes won’t come around the fringes of the roster. There are 11 players still on the team who were members of both championship squads in 2016-17.
That number will likely decrease before the puck drops again in October.
“The window’s still open,” Rutherford said. “I think it should be open for more than just one year, also. But I’ll say the obvious based on how things finished. We’re not going to be able to do it the way we finished.”
The topic of team speed became an issue because of the most recent acquisitions Rutherford has made on defense. He signed Jack Johnson to a five-year deal last summer and picked up Erik Gudbranson at the trade deadline, adding two players known more for their physicality than their mobility or play with the puck.
Rutherford bristled at the notion that the change in philosophy is leading the Penguins down the wrong path.
“I think our defense is probably the best now that it’s been since I’ve been here, as a group,” Rutherford said. “You always like mobile defensemen. You like guys that can move the puck. We have at least one guy on each pairing that can move the puck, and now we’ve got guys that can have some pushback. At one point in time, you asked me, ‘Do we have enough guys that can push back?’ Now you’re asking me if I have enough guys (that) have speed. If you find those guys, they’re making $15 million a year and there aren’t any.”
Rutherford pointed not to 2016 but to March when describing the standard his team should aim to reach on a consistent basis.
During that month, the Penguins went 13-3-3 not with a smothering offensive attack but with a stout defense that allowed 2.19 goals per game.
“We had a tough schedule. We played a lot of games. We played the game the right way, and that’s when we played at our best,” Rutherford said. “We were tracking towards being a good playoff team, and then we ran up against a team that was more determined and played the game the right way and we played a higher risk.
“But it was there. We saw it in March and it can certainly be there in the future, but it won’t be the exact same team.”
Jonathan Bombulie is a Tribune-Review staff writer. You can contact Jonathan by email at [email protected] or via Twitter .