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.
• 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.
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.