Tim Benz: Like it or not, Penguins GM Jim Rutherford sticking to his plan | TribLIVE.com
Tim Benz, Columnist

Tim Benz: Like it or not, Penguins GM Jim Rutherford sticking to his plan

Tim Benz
Winnipeg Jets’ Brandon Tanev skates during a game against the Penguins on Jan. 4, 2019.

Let’s not put Jim Rutherford on an aircraft carrier with the “Mission Accomplished” sign behind his head just yet.

But it appears the Penguins general manager has taken many of the steps he wanted to take this offseason.

During his season-ending press conference in April, Rutherford said he wanted to make the team hungrier, tougher to play against and one that was easier for Mike Sullivan to coach.

Those were goals Rutherford stated directly. Other goals he didn’t state as directly:

• Get faster

• Trade Phil Kessel

Rutherford is following that plan. Let’s see if he got the right guys to do it.

Perhaps more importantly, let’s see if he got rid of the right guy to do it.

Acquiring Jets forward Brandon Tanev on Monday went a long way toward the “tougher to play against” objective. His 278 hits were third most in the NHL, while his 81 blocked shots ranked third among forwards.

Tanev was one of Winnipeg’s most valued penalty killers last year. And the Jets gave up only 1.79 goals against per 60 minutes with Tanev on the ice. That was one of the best rates on the team.

Some of the other players added in recent weeks don’t exactly fit that profile. Alex Galchenyuk and Dominik Kahun are viewed as skill-oriented playmakers. And 19-year-old defenseman Pierre-Olivier Joseph needs to add to his 163-pound frame before anyone will consider him a sturdy presence on the blue line.

But their speed could be difficult to play against for opponents — something playoff foes understood when facing the Penguins in 2016 and 2017.

Hungrier? Well, all of those players are between 19 and 27 years old, and they are all looking for a first ring. Kessel has two. So does Olli Maatta. Bryan Rust may need to be traded for cap reasons. He has two titles already. Maybe that’s the facelift Rutherford was referencing.

“It’s new energy, new excitement,” Rutherford said during his news conference Monday. “The three new guys were so excited they were coming through the phone. They bring that excitement to training camp and to our room. If they bring that excitement every day to our practice, that’s what we are looking for.”

As far as coachability goes, time will tell. Kessel has never been a fan of absorbing coaching, be it instruction or lineup decisions. Here or elsewhere during his career.

We don’t know how Kahun, Tanev or Galchenyuk will accept Sullivan’s hard-nosed approach. But seeing as how none of them has the veteran standing and accomplishment Kessel does, they should.

The team also may become more coachable now that the forward lineup has become more versatile than it was to start last year.

“When you think about where we were a year ago, wondering what we were going to do with our center ice and the depth we had. Then where we are today?” Rutherford offered. “You’ve got McCann on the wing who is a natural center. You’ve got Kahun (who was signed as a center by Chicago but played the wing). You’ve got Galchenyuk (who played both spots). We certainly have a lot of depth there.”

Rutherford also praised Teddy Blueger as a guy “who has established himself as a regular NHL player.” He can play center or wing, as well. But then again, Rutherford had similar projections for Daniel Sprong a year ago.

How’d that go?

Noticeable by his absence from Rutherford’s compliments was Nick Bjugstad, who also plays both wing and center. That could mean it’s Bjugstad ($4.1 million cap hit) who is on the move instead of Rust ($3.5 million cap hit). But someone of significant contract value probably has to be moved off the roster for the Penguins to become cap compliant once the restricted free agents get signed.

“There’s a good chance we’ll have to make another move, yes,” Rutherford admitted.

All of these decisions by the general manager seem to have been made with an eye toward making Sullivan’s job easier. Kessel’s absence may aid in that regard, as well.

“Much more balance. Getting back to where we were in 16 and ‘17 where the coach can roll those lines on more of an even-minutes basis,” Rutherford said.

The next question becomes: When does the coach get a contract extension? That’s something Rutherford refused to nail down Monday.

So far, though, a lot of the personnel decisions being made by Rutherford are being done with Sullivan’s comfort in mind.

And with Rutherford’s vision in place.

GMJR just better hope these new skaters look as good together on the ice as they do in his head.

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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