Tim Benz: Is Penguins GM Jim Rutherford kidding us? Or himself? | TribLIVE.com
Tim Benz, Columnist

Tim Benz: Is Penguins GM Jim Rutherford kidding us? Or himself?

Tim Benz
Chaz Palla | Tribune-Review
Pittsburgh Penguins general manager Jim Rutherford said in recent days, “(Phil Kessel) is a good player. He’s an impact player. He has been for us since he got here. We wouldn’t have won the Cups without him.”

When it comes to Pittsburgh Penguins general manager Jim Rutherford, one question needs to be asked.

Who is he kidding? Us? Or himself?

Right now, I’d say it’s the former.

By the time the 2019-20 season starts, it may end up being the latter.

Over the past three weeks, the Phil Kessel trade to Minnesota reportedly has been consummated, nixed, resuscitated, and scrapped.

That’s where we stand now. As we reported on TribLive, Rutherford is trying to calm the waters on the Kessel dilemma, saying on Tuesday, “It looks like he’ll stay here.”

This could be where Rutherford is trying to snow the public. It’s akin to when Kevin Colbert made it seem like the Steelers wanted to retain Martavis Bryant at the end of the 2017 season, only to trade him to Oakland a few months later during the draft.

“(Kessel) is a good player,” Rutherford continued. “He’s an impact player. He has been for us since he got here. We wouldn’t have won the Cups without him.”

Now that’s where Rutherford is kidding himself.

Hold on. I’ll say it before the Phil DePhense Phoundation races to the comments section below to type it for the 1 millionth time:

“He’s a point-per-game scorer!”

Yeah. We know. We got it. Of course, Kessel is “an impact player.”

But if GMJR really wants to live up to his season-ending press conference decree that the Penguins need to make some significant changes to make themselves better next year, he minimally needs to trade Kessel, if not make more moves in support of that idea.

As the dust was still settling on the Penguins’ humiliating sweep at the hands of the Islanders in mid-April, Rutherford made it sound like chemistry, coachability, and team approach to hockey were the problems with this year’s group.

“I didn’t see a point where our guys came together as a team,” Rutherford said back on April 18. “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?

“The window is still open. 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 roster-shifting implied by Rutherford isn’t accomplished with dumping Jack Johnson’s contract, or trading Olli Maatta, or getting a draft pick for Tristan Jarry.

Unless a trade occurs for Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin, Kris Letang, Jake Guentzel, Matt Murray, or Kessel, no substantive change will occur with this hockey team.

Crosby won’t be traded. I’d be stunned if Murray or Guentzel get dealt. Malkin and Letang are highly likely to be back.

And then there is Kessel, with his eight-team approved trade list.

Those are the only players who will yield enough talent in return to impact the roster. Those are the only players whose absence from the locker room will shake up the culture, style, or approach.

Speaking of windows, a trade of anyone else is merely window dressing.

So, here’s where Rutherford needs to make an admission to himself, if not to us.

If change for the sake of change is that important to him, trade Kessel for a low-round pick and be happy about it. If the value associated with a trade of a player of Kessel’s ilk is freeing up $6.8 million in cap space (or less if some of the salary is retained), consider that a win.

If it’s Rutherford’s belief — as he made it sound in April — that failure to play within a structure and to accept coaching are problems, then maybe keeping Kessel is worse than giving him away for scraps.

Maybe No. 81 would be addition-by-subtraction because he’d be too hard to keep if the Penguins are truly attempting to alter their style and attitude.

Sound familiar? Like that certain receiver who got shipped to Oakland for a pittance of a return in 2018?

Or, well, that other receiver who got shipped to Oakland for a pittance of a return in 2019?

For now, Rutherford can keep giving us a soft sell on how he thinks Kessel can return to Pittsburgh next fall, and everything will be fine.

He’s going to have to give himself a harder sell on the notion that next spring’s results will be any better from what we saw against the Islanders if this roster comes back virtually intact.

Tim Benz is a Tribune-Review staff writer. You can contact Tim at [email protected] or via Twitter. All tweets could be reposted. All emails are subject to publication unless specified otherwise.

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