State of the Penguins: What is the next general manager inheriting?

Jim Rutherford sent shockwaves through the NHL on Wednesday when he abruptly resigned as general manager of the Pittsburgh Penguins just seven games into the 2020-21 season. It leaves the Penguins in the unexpected position of trying to find a new GM, a new vision to try, and capitalize on the remaining years of the Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin era.

For the moment, Patrik Allvin has the title of interim GM. While the Penguins say he will be considered for the position, it still seems that the team’s next full-time GM is currently outside of the organization.

Whoever it ends up being, what exactly did Rutherford leave behind for that new general manager to inherit?

Stanley Cup expectations, an aging core, and big decisions

The Penguins have been the most successful team of the salary cap era and have set an extremely high bar for themselves. They have won, and they have done everything in their power to continue winning. That expectation is not going to change as long as Crosby and Malkin are on the roster.

Which brings us to the first couple of challenges a new general manager is going to face. In a way, it’s a sort of a good news, bad news situation.

The good news is you are inheriting a roster that has two future Hall of Famers on it and two players that have been the foundation of three Cup winning teams (and one other Cup Final appearance). That is a good situation to be stepping into because most new GM jobs are not going to have that sitting in the locker room.

The problem: Crosby and Malkin (and Kris Letang, the other big member of the core) are 33 and 34 years old, respectively, and not getting any younger. They are still capable of being great, game-changing players. But it may not happen as consistently as it once did, or to the level that it once did. That means the team is going to need even more support around them in the form of depth. It is going to take some creative roster building to make that work.

[Related: Jim Rutherford resigns as Penguins GM]

Even when Crosby and Malkin were at their absolute peak as players they alone were still not enough to win a championship. It was not until the roster around them was overhauled into something championship-worthy that they won. That is going to be even more true now as they get later into their 30s. As the old saying goes, father time is undefeated.

The challenge here is going to be the fact that Malkin and Letang will be unrestricted free agents after next season (as will Bryan Rust), which means they will be eligible to sign new contracts after this season. This is tricky because they have to be willing to separate what they did for the Penguins versus what they can still do. How much is that worth, and what is a price that works for everybody in terms of compensation and the salary cap?

It still seems like that as long as Malkin wants to be a Penguin, he will remain a Penguin. Letang (and Rust to a far lesser degree) are going to almost certainly be very different discussions.

A very thin farm system

The Penguins have been all in on trying to win nearly two decades now, and that means trading a lot of young assets and draft picks for immediate, short-term help.

The results of that approach…

• The Penguins have made just 35 draft picks over the past seven drafts (minus-14 from where they would have been had they made zero draft pick trades).

• Only two of those draft picks came in the first round. They selected Kasperi Kapanen in 2014 and Samuel Poulin in 2019.

• At this point only five of those 35 players have played a single game in the NHL, and none of those five were drafted after 2015. Of those five, only Kapenen and Sam Lafferty are currently members of the Penguins organization. And it is worth noting that Kapanen was traded in 2015 for Phil Kessel (a great trade for the Penguins) and re-acquired this past offseason.

[MORE: Our Line Starts Podcast: Laine, Dubois trade; Canadiens stay hot]

• Seven of those 35 picks were drafted in the first-or second rounds of their respective drafts. Five of them are no longer in the organization. Daniel Sprong, Calen Addison, Filip Hallandar, and Filip Gustavsson were all traded (in various deals that have netted them Jason Zucker, Marcus Pettersson, the re-acquisition of Kapanen, and Jared McCann), while Zachary Lauzon retired from hockey.

• As of now, they only have five picks in the 2021 NHL draft, with only one of them (a second-round pick) coming within the first four rounds.

The best prospects remaining in the system are Poulin, Nathan Legare, and Pierre-Oliver Joseph. While all of them have NHL potential (Joseph is currently in the NHL), they are not elite level prosepects.

None of this is really a criticism. You only get superstar players for so many years, and you owe it to everybody to maximize their careers. And it is hard to argue with the results in recent years. Since the start of the 2014-15 season (when Rutherford took over) the Penguins have the fourth most regular season wins, the third most playoff wins, and two Stanley Cup banners. Every team in the league would take that over a good prospect ranking and no NHL success.

But, that most recent Stanley Cup victory is now four years in the rear view mirror and the postseason results have consistently slid since then, going from a second-round loss, to a first-round sweep, to a qualifying round loss in the bubble. As the star players get closer to retirement, and the results regress, and the farm system gets thinner … well … you see where this is going.

Some heavy contracts

Rutherford was never afraid to pay a steep price (trade assets or salary cap space) to acquire (or keep) a player he wanted.

That has resulted in some big contracts throughout the lineup. Perhaps in areas where you don’t really want a big contract. Some of the longest current contracts on the team belong to the likes of Brandon Tanev, Mike Matheson, Marcus Pettersson, and John Marino, while they also owe around $1 million per year (and in one season $2 million) paying off the buyout of Jack Johnson.

Other than Marino and maybe Pettersson, all of those players are bottom of the lineup players. Spending more at the top of the lineup does not really hurt you, because those superstars are still probably going to provide more on-ice value than their salary cap number. But when you start paying $1 million more here, $2 million more there on the bottom of the lineup, that can start to add up and cause a cap crunch that forces your hand somewhere else. Brandon Tanev is a good player. But he is so good that you need to commit six years to him? Do you need to trade for six years of Mike Matheson? It adds up.

Conclusion

Assuming they can get through this current rash of injuries on defense and get competent goaltending this is a team that can still compete in the short term (this season, next season). The stars are still capable of dominating, and there are enough good players around them that this window is not closed. But the mid-term and long-term outlook is going to require some serious heavy lifting from the new general manager.

Adam Gretz is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @AGretz.

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    Ducks’ Urho Vaakanainen crashes into boards, leaves on stretcher

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    ANAHEIM, Calif. — Ducks defenseman Urho Vaakanainen was taken off the Honda Center ice on a stretcher after he crashed into the end boards in the first period of Anaheim’s preseason game against the San Jose Sharks.

    The Finnish defenseman was conscious and alert with full movement in his extremities at UCI Medical Center, the Ducks said.

    The frightening incident occurred midway through the opening period when Vaakanainen smashed into the boards at a dangerous speed behind the Sharks’ net. Vaakanainen appeared to be concentrating on the pass he had just made to Derek Grant, who scored the Ducks’ opening goal on the assist.

    Vaakanainen’s teammates came onto the ice and gathered around him as he was taken away on the stretcher.

    The Ducks acquired the 23-year-old Vaakanainen from Boston last March in the deal that sent longtime Ducks defenseman Hampus Lindholm to the Bruins. After recording two assists in 14 games for the Ducks last season, Vaakanainen is attempting to win a top-six role on Anaheim’s defense this fall.

    Lightning donate $2 million to Hurricane Ian relief efforts

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    TAMPA, Fla. — The Tampa Bay Lightning and team owner Jeff Vinik are donating $2 million toward Hurricane Ian relief efforts.

    The NHL team announced that $1 million each will be donated by the Tampa Bay Lightning Foundation and the Vinik Family Foundation.

    “This is a tragic situation for many families and communities across the state of Florida, but especially so in the southwest region of the state,” Vinik said in a statement released by the team. “In times like these the most important thing we can do is support one another, and we hope this donation will help families recover and rebuild in the months to come.”

    Ian made landfall Wednesday on Florida’s Gulf Coast, south of the Tampa Bay area. The Lightning postponed two home preseason games and moved the club’s training camp to Nashville, Tennessee, during the storm.

    Maple Leafs sign defenseman Rasmus Sandin to 2-year deal

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    TORONTO — Rasmus Sandin has signed a two-year, $2.8 million contract with the Toronto Maple Leafs, the club announced on Thursday.

    The 22-year-old from Sweden was the 29th overall selection in the 2018 draft. Sandin had 16 points in 51 games with Toronto last season. He’s played in 88 career regular-season games, with six goals and 22 assists, and has one goal in five playoff games.

    “Got a great set of tools,” fellow defenseman Jake Muzzin said. “With experience, I think they’re only going to get better.”

    The signing comes as the Leafs’ blueliners been hit hard by injuries. Muzzin has been dealing with a back issue, and Timothy Liljegren recently had surgery for a hernia.

    Toronto then lost Jamie Benn (groin) and Carl Dahlstrom (shoulder) in Wednesday’s 3-0 preseason victory over the Montreal Canadiens, pressing forwards Calle Jarnkrok and Alexander Kerfoot into defensive roles for two periods.

    Back with Wild, Fleury welcomes big workload as clear No. 1

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    ST. PAUL, Minn. — With his ever-present smile, tireless approach and long list of accomplishments in the net, Marc-Andre Fleury has always embraced a heavy workload.

    The Minnesota Wild sure haven’t shied away from leaning hard on their new – and 37-year-old – goalie. After arriving in a deadline-day trade in March and re-signing with the Wild in July, the guy everyone calls “Flower” is still fully abloom as he begins his 19th season in the NHL.

    “They say, `You play,’ I play, unless maybe I’m hurt or something,” Fleury said. “But other than that, I like playing.”

    Wild general manager Bill Guerin initially planned to bring back both Fleury and Cam Talbot, who made the All-Star team and went 13-0-3 in his last 16 regular season starts before being benched in favor of Fleury for the first-round playoff series against St. Louis. The Wild lost in six games, after Talbot got the cold start in the elimination game and gave up four goals on 26 shots.

    Guerin changed his mind, though, after signing Fleury to a two-year, $7 million contract. Realizing Talbot’s frustration from the lack of postseason action, he didn’t want to risk any tension or discontent. Talbot was traded to Ottawa for Filip Gustavsson, who will be the No. 2 goalie while top prospect Jesper Wallstedt gets more development in the AHL.

    Gustavsson has only 23 career regular-season starts, nearly 200 fewer than Talbot, so it’s a good bet that Fleury will get the majority of the games.

    “I was ready to share the load with him, but things didn’t work out and happy to be having the chance to play maybe a bit more. It’s fun to play. It’s more fun than sitting on the bench,” said Fleury, who went 28-23-5 in 56 combined starts for Chicago and Minnesota last season with a 2.90 goals against average and a .908 save percentage.

    The Wild reconvened for training camp last week, beginning their quest to recapture the mojo they enjoyed last season while setting franchise records for points (113), wins (53) and goals (305). The only team that finished ahead of them in the Western Conference was Colorado, which went on to win the Stanley Cup, but they never met the Avs in the playoffs because the Blues got to them first.

    There’s a strong chemistry in place, at least, to build upon.

    “We still have a lot of guys here who were here last year. We’re just trying to make it even better, just trying to listen to everybody,” center Joel Eriksson Ek said. “We want to set a standard and a way for how hard this team’s going to work.”

    The Wild start the regular season by hosting the New York Rangers on Oct. 13.

    COMINGS AND GOINGS

    The most significant roster move of the summer amongst the skaters was the inevitable salary-cap-driven trade of second-leading scorer Kevin Fiala to Los Angeles. Fiala had a career-high 33 goals and 52 assists last season. Guerin otherwise dabbled mostly in two-way contracts in free agency for depth. Former Anaheim center Sam Steel signed with Minnesota last month, one day after defenseman Dimitry Kulikov was dealt to the Ducks.

    MORE POWER

    The Wild were done in during the playoffs by abysmal special teams. They went just 4 for 24 on the power play against the Blues, and head coach Dean Evason had the team working on that on the first day on the ice. The penalty kill that lagged last season was a focus of the second practice.

    “It has to get better, no question,” Evason said.

    BLUE LINE SHUFFLE

    Captain Jared Spurgeon has been placed with Jonas Brodin on the first pair on defense, and Jake Middleton has joined Matt Dumba on the second unit. Dumba and Brodin are close friends who’ve been paired together for several seasons.

    “Dumbs is a shooter too,” said Middleton, who re-signed for three years and $7.35 million. “It’s pretty exciting. I can get some cookies passing him the puck. That’d be a big plus. I think it’ll work well. He loves hitting guys too. He plays a gritty game as well so I think we’ll be a good combo.”

    UP FRONT

    With Jordan Greenway recovering from offseason surgeries, Tyson Jost will get the first chance to skate with Eriksson Ek and Marcus Foligno. The departure of Fiala has opened at least one spot for a rookie to make the team, with 2020 first-round draft pick Marco Rossi in line for it.

    ON THE SLATE

    This is the first time in eight years the Wild will play their regular-season opener at home. After three more games at Xcel Energy Center, they don’t hit the road until a five-game trip that starts Oct. 22 at Boston. The Wild have a season-long nine-game homestand from Feb. 9-21.