Changes are coming to Penguins roster, GM Jim Rutherford says
All 20 players who dressed for his team in the final game of the playoffs are either under contract for next season or are restricted free agents who are likely to be re-signed without much drama.
Penguins general manager Jim Rutherford, therefore, could sit back and spend the summer polishing his Stanley Cup rings on the beach or the golf course if he wants to.
He doesn't want to.
As players cleaned out their lockers two days after their three-peat bid ended with a Game 6 loss to the Washington Capitals in the second round of the playoffs, Rutherford said Wednesday that his team's roster will look different in the fall.
"I think it's obvious that I'm going to keep an open mind to making some changes, and I will make some changes," Rutherford said. "I can't give you a definite answer on who that's going to be right now and exactly the positions, but we're a good team, and we will be a good team going forward. We'll have a chance to win again. We have the nucleus to do that."
There was one change Rutherford already decided on. He said winger Daniel Sprong, a high-scoring, 21-year-old prospect whose ascension to the NHL has slowed to a crawl, will be in the Penguins lineup next season.
"We were very careful with him this year," Rutherford said. "We develop players in different ways, and certainly he had the ability at certain times to come in and play an offensive role on our team, but he needed to work on his all-around game.
"He did that. There were times in Wilkes-Barre where it dropped off a little bit, but I think it was more from disappointment he wasn't called up here. But he's a very talented player that will score a lot of goals in this league and he will be a regular on our team next year."
Rutherford's commitment to Sprong could provide some clues into his offseason plans.
Considering 23-year-old wingers Zach Aston-Reese and Dominik Simon also found themselves among the team's top 12 forwards during the playoffs, the Penguins look to have a surplus of capable players on the wing.
They finished 20th in the league in goals against in the regular season, allowing 3.02 per game, and were sliced and diced by Washington's top-line duo of Alex Ovechkin and Evgeny Kuznetsov in the second round of the playoffs.
Putting two and two together, a logical path for Rutherford to follow might be dealing from the wing to bolster the defense.
That's just one avenue Rutherford could pursue. Last summer, his personnel aims were clear. His No. 1 priority was adding a third-line center, followed by defensive depth and a back-up goalie. This summer, he has a blank canvas in front of him. There are no gaping holes, but there are no areas that couldn't use a little improvement, either.
Should he acquiesce to the talk-show callers and move Kris Letang or Phil Kessel for a seismic roster shake-up? Shed salary to make a run at a big-ticket free agent? Rutherford didn't sound like a GM with plans that dramatic in the hopper Wednesday, but with the team's top stars in their early 30s, his directive is to win now. Anything, therefore, is possible.
"I think it's fair to say this will be a different-looking team by the time we open next season," Rutherford said. "It doesn't mean there's going to be drastic changes or a lot of changes, but there will be changes in areas that will become necessary."
One area where there won't be a change, of course, is in the general manager's office. Rutherford will turn 70 in February, but he no plans to call it quits as he begins the final year of a three-year contract.
"It's the annual question," he said, loading up for the zinger he would soon hit reporters with. "I think the best answer is I may be around longer than you guys."
Jonathan Bombulie is a Tribune-Review staff writer. Reach him at email@example.com or via Twitter @BombulieTrib.