PITTSBURGH — Jim Rutherford is not ready to blow up the core that’s led the Pittsburgh Penguins to three Stanley Cups in a little more than a decade.
Still, the longtime general manager understands there’s some serious retooling necessary following a second straight playoff flameout.
The issue isn’t just that the Penguins have lost nine of their past 10 postseason games. It’s the way in which they have lost them that’s left Rutherford “puzzled.” The fight that defined the group that won consecutive Cups in 2016 and 2017 has all but disappeared.
Nowhere was that more evident than in Game 4 of their qualifying series against Montreal, the one that ended with the 24th-seeded Canadiens scoring twice in the third period to capture the best-of-five series in four games.
“You’re waiting for the desperation from the drop of the puck and it didn’t come in the first period,” Rutherford said Tuesday. “It didn’t come in the second period. And it was even worse in the third period. There’s something wrong if you don’t have the drive in that point in time to win the series.”
Figuring out exactly how things got sideways, however, will be tricky. Rutherford remains adamant he has no plans to part ways with stars Evgeni Malkin and Kris Letang. Yet he also admits captain Sidney Crosby needs more help if the Penguins plan to remain in contention during the back half of his Hall of Fame career.
“Sid’s leadership never changes and his approach never changes, to answer that directly, I have no concerns there,” Rutherford said. “I think we do need a little more out of some of the other guys and you know, are they in a position to still give that leadership? Whether it be lead by example on the ice or in the room verbally, or do we need some of the other guys to step up and do more?”
Rutherford believed he addressed Pittsburgh’s need to get back to — as coach Mike Sullivan puts it — “playing the right way” when he shipped talented but mercurial forward Phil Kessel to Arizona last summer for Alex Galchenyuk and signed energetic forward Brandon Tanev in free agency. While Tanev proved a wise investment, Galchenyuk never meshed and was gone by mid-February and even Tanev’s relentlessness couldn’t overcome the uninspired play of his teammates.
Rutherford understands it would be easy to place blame on the four-month layoff provided by COVID-19, but he’s not ready to go there.
“You can make all the excuses you want, but you can’t make those excuses when (a quick playoff exit) happens two years in a row,” Rutherford said. Rutherford believes the team needs to get younger during what will be an extended offseason. Letang, Crosby and forward Patric Hornqvist are 33. Malkin is 34. All provided moments of brilliance during the regular season. The playoffs, not so much.
In nearly 83 minutes of ice time, Malkin collected just one assist. The top power-play unit — one that included both Crosby and Malkin — looked listless for long stretches. “You don’t need to be around hockey long to see the group of guys we got on the ice and be puzzled about what that happened,” Rutherford said.
Still, he remains confident the team will continue to be in “win-now” mode as it has been throughout Crosby and Malkin’s primes. “We’re here to be a contending team and win a Cup,” he said. “We recognize that window (to win) is getting smaller and smaller, and it’s getting to that point. We realize it’s still open and still doable.”
It will just have to remain doable without some familiar faces. Goaltenders Matt Murray and Tristan Jarry are restricted free agents, and Rutherford allows only one will be back next season because the economics to hold on to both don’t make sense.
Jarry, a surprise All-Star pick after a stellar first half, figures to be the favorite to remain while Murray — who already has his name on the Stanley Cup twice at age 26 — will likely move on. The same goes for unrestricted free agent defenseman Justin Schultz. Schultz’s arrival in a trade from Edmonton in February 2016 marked an important point in a makeover that led to a championship parade in mid-June of that year. Yet he and Jack Johnson struggled mightily against Montreal and Rutherford didn’t exactly mount a defense of Schultz’s play when asked to assess their performance as a blue-line combo.
“I know everybody picks on Jack and they have for a long time, but I think in that pairing that Justin Schultz had a lot more to give and it wasn’t there,” Rutherford said.
The rise of rookie John Marino makes Schultz’s departure inevitable. And winger Jake Guentzel — an All-Star for the first time this season — and Tanev offer proof the cupboard behind Malkin and Crosby isn’t exactly bare. Yet it wasn’t enough to stop the Penguins from heading home following an shockingly brief stay in Toronto.
“Did some of the players feel they didn’t want to put in the extra work to stay in the bubble longer?” Rutherford said. “It’s very disappointing and changes need to be made. Going younger where guys are eager to prove ourselves [is important but we have to make sure we are] doing it cautiously so we can transition on the fly and still be a contending team.”