Pittsburgh Penguins general manager Jim Rutherford held a teleconference with reporters on August 11th for his season-ending media availability after a disappointing qualifying series loss to the Montreal Canadiens.
During this session, Rutherford was still fuming from his club’s early exit. He addressed several issues regarding the team, including the disappointment in their playoff performance, changes that may be necessary, and what the status of several players will be as they head into the offseason.
Disappointing Playoff Runs Sparked Need for Change
It was just one year ago that Rutherford talked about the need to become a tougher team to play against after getting swept in the first round of the playoffs by the New York Islanders. Including this year’s qualifying round loss to Montreal, the Penguins have won just one of their last eight playoff games. What was even more disappointing to Rutherford watching the series loss was the lack of desperation the team played with during the qualifying round series.
“We don’t have that same drive as we get closer to elimination,” Rutherford said. “It was so disappointing in Game 4 to see where we’re at. You’re waiting for the desperation from the drop of the puck, and it didn’t come in the first period. 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 that drive to win in that point in time to win the series.”(From Jim Rutherford: ‘Changes need to be made’ for the Penguins. TRIBLive, 08/11/2020).
The Penguins feel they still have another run for a championship with a strong core led by Captain Sidney Crosby and feel now is the time to make some changes.
Coaching Staff Changes
On August 12th, the day after Rutherford’s season-ending teleconference, three assistant coaches, Mark Recchi, Jacques Martin, and fan-favorite Sergei Gonchar, were fired.
Recchi was a member of three Stanley Cup teams in Pittsburgh and oversaw power-play duties.
Rutherford was very unhappy with the performance of the power-play unit, saying the Penguins had enough talent to excel in that area this season. With the man advantage, they ranked 16th during the regular season and became a bigger problem in the playoffs going 3-for-17 in the qualifying round series versus Montreal.
“Usually when you’re trying to fix the power play, you’re searching, and you’re saying, ‘We’ve got to go out and find a player or two,’” Rutherford said. “We’ve got enough guys on the power play that it can be successful … It’s so frustrating to watch us go time and time again and not get good scoring chances, let alone goals.” (From ‘Penguins shake up Mike Sullivan’s coaching staff, won’t bring back top assistants’ Pittsburgh Post Gazette, 08/12/2020).
Martin joined the Penguins in 2013 under Dan Bylsma and continued on the staff by Sullivan, where he was a part of both the 2016 and 2017 Stanley Cup runs. He oversaw the penalty kill units that ranked ninth in the league in 2019-20 and did not allow a power-play goal in the Canadiens series.
Gonchar was a fan favorite as a player and is a close personal friend and sounding board for Evgeni Malkin. He was considered a power-play genius as a player for the team that won the Cup in 2009. In 2015, he accepted a job in the organization as a player development coach and later became an assistant coach in 2017. Goaltending coach Mike Buckley is the one assistant who will stick around.
Sullivan is 214-115-40 in four-plus seasons with the Penguins and will remain as head coach. He signed a contract extension last summer that runs through the 2023-24 season,
“We all have to take responsibility for it,” Sullivan said. “It starts with me.”
Sullivan believes he still has the core to win, including Crosby, Malkin, and defenseman Kris Letang. He pointed to Pittsburgh’s solid regular season, where they finished fifth in the Eastern Conference despite having 291 man-games lost this season due to assorted injuries, including Crosby’s recovery from a sports hernia.
“It’s disappointing for all of us, and the players included,” Sullivan said. “I know we’ve got a committed group from a work ethic standpoint. But we’ve got to translate that into results. And we fell short this year.”
Look for the management group to bring in at least one experienced coach to the staff who would be able to replace Sullivan should the Penguins not play up to expectations in 2020-21. Hiring qualified assistant coaches who could be head coaches is a commonly used tactic under Rutherford and is how Sullivan took the reins of the team from Mike Johnston back in December 2015.
Roster Changes Are Coming
The core of Crosby, Letang, and Malkin have each spent at least 14 years in the NHL, all with the Penguins, helping the team become a perennial contender in the league. The team had reached the Stanley Cup playoffs in each of the last 13 years.
“I plan to move forward with the core. These are good players,” Rutherford added “They still have good hockey left in them. I always have to say, if some fantastic trade comes along, you have to look at it, but I will not actively be looking at trying to trade our core players.”
There will likely be an injection of speed and youth to the roster next season. The Penguins during the postseason had an average age of 28.2, which was the third-oldest of the 24 playoff teams. Look for anyone outside of the core of this team to be a candidate to be moved in an attempt to make the roster faster, younger, and more energetic.
The Penguins currently have two starting-caliber goalies, but in a salary cap world, one will be moved to clear some salary for incoming players. Matt Murray and Tristan Jarry are both restricted free agents. Murray, even with two Stanley Cup rings with Pittsburgh, will likely be dealt due to his contract ($3.75 million) and the fact that Jarry proved he was ready to handle the number one goalie duties by going 20-12-1 in 33 games played this season.
The expectations are high in Pittsburgh. The last two playoffs both ended early, winning just one game in eight tries. Look for an active offseason for Rutherford as he looks to add new voices to the coaching staff. There will also be several player changes coming that will seek to add fresh legs to an aging core in hopes for one more Stanley Cup run. Like most championship teams, the rebuild will come, eventually. The Penguins just hope to push it off for a few more years as long as this current core is playing at a high level.
Rob Klein grew up in the suburbs of Detroit, Michigan playing pond hockey every winter, and watching Hockey Night in Canada on CBC every Saturday. Being able to finally watch his Red Wings hoist the Stanley Cup in 1997 was his finest NHL moment. As a fan of the NHL for over 40 years he has been able to follow many great teams and appreciate the history of this great game as well as the remarkable talent that is playing today.