The Pittsburgh Penguins have been the ultimate Jekyll and Hyde team so far this season, going through stretches where they have looked like the Harlem Globetrotters on ice, and other times, especially recently, where they have been more Washington Generals.
Entering Wednesday’s game in Washington they were riding a four-game losing streak where they had been outscored by a 19-6 margin. For the season they are near the bottom of the league in goals against and shots against, their once fearsome power play has struggled so much that coach Mike Sullivan opted to split up his top unit to open Wednesdays’ game and throw all of his lines and defense pairings into a blender, while nobody outside of Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin, Phil Kessel or Kris Letang is providing any offense to speak of.
This is not sitting well with general manager Jim Rutherford, and he made that all very clear during his radio show on the team’s flagship radio station (105.9, The X) before Wednesday’s game.
Rutherford has always been one of the more candid general managers in the league and is never afraid to share his opinions.
Boy did he ever share his opinions on Wednesday.
Some of the highlights include…
First, on the team’s general inconsistency and how everything fell apart following their four-game winning streak in Canada.
“What I’m seeing I don’t like. Nobody likes it. We’re trying to figure out what’s gone wrong here. We went through Canada, it was a great trip where the guys came together, that team chemistry that we’ve been looking for even from last year, it was really strong and it was all coming together. It was almost like when we cleared customs coming back into the United States, we left it all there. I’d like to say we have an answer for it, but we don’t right now. We’re watching it really close. We don’t think the team’s not good enough, because if it wasn’t we wouldn’t have played the way going through Canada. But certainly if this continues in short order we’re going to have to make some changes.”
On the team’s work and energy level…
“We’re not playing with any energy or determination. We’re just trying to get through the games. These other teams are coming, they’re outworking us, and they deserve to beat us. In some of these games probably deserve to beat us worse than the score indicates. It’s just getting back to the basics and guys getting back to work and coming back to the rink determined to win, and I haven’t seen it since we came from back from Canada and it’s very concerning.”
On whether or not this team needs a BIG change…
“We really believed coming out of camp we were a contending team. We start those first four or five games and we were very inconsistent, then we played very well for four games, and then we went back to being a bad team where we didn’t play well at all. We have the players that can work through it. Sometimes they can. Sometimes they can’t. I wonder if this group has been together for too long and maybe we need to change it up, but that’s what I will watch for in the next game games.”
On young players that have found early success in the NHL and just signed big contracts, and other players that might be playing for future contracts…
“Things change, because at a young age, guys win Stanley Cups, a lot of guys go their whole career and they don’t even get close to it. We’ve had a few that have won a couple, then they get bigger contracts, and they kind of settle in and they forget what got them to where they are today. And then we have some guys that are working toward a contract next offseason, and so maybe they change their game. Maybe they think scoring more goals or getting more points is going to get them more money, so they get away from their game and what their role is. And I see that happening with some of the guys on both ends of my point here, so that’s what I was saying earlier, has this team been together too long, and that’s what you have to watch for, when do you have to make those changes. The players are doing everything they can to tell me now’s the time.”
On the lack of depth and players outside of Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin, Phil Kessel, and Kris Letang not carrying their weight…
“It’s almost like the guys come to the games and say, ‘Let’s just let the top guys do it.’ Let’s let Sid, Geno, Phil and Letang carry us. We’ll just get through the game and move on to the next game. Forget about the work ethic it takes or forget about the role they play. But when those top players aren’t getting it done, whether they’re shut down or they’re just not having a good game, that’s when we need those other guys to come in and contribute and help win games. We’re not getting it.”
Oh, and let’s not forget the goalies, Matt Murray and Casey DeSmith…
“In the two years we won the Cup we were playing at times the way we are playing now. But between Fleury and Murray they were phenomenal in goal. They were hard to score against. That is not what we’re getting now. We aree getting inconsistent goaltending.”
There is an awful lot to unpack here, and for the most part, nothing he said is really incorrect.
The team’s energy level often times seems to be lacking, at least compared to their opponents. As one of the oldest teams in the league they no longer seem to have the same jump or speed to their game as they did two years ago, especially as the rest of the league has seemingly caught up to them (and perhaps even surpassed them) when it comes to playing a certain way. The depth scoring, which was a huge staple of the Stanley Cup winning teams in 2015-16 and 2016-17, has completely evaporated as nobody beyond the four top players (Crosby, Malkin, Kessel, Letang) is providing any sort of consistent offense. And the goalies? Well, they entered play on Wednesday with a combined team save percentage of just .903, including a dismal .886 mark for Murray.
So, yeah, there is a lot wrong there.
You can listen to his entire show here.
But while Rutherford is mostly spot-on with his criticisms, it is only fair to point out that he, too, has had some missteps over the past two years that are absolutely contributing to the team’s slow start and current position.
His moves during the summer of 2017 backfired so badly that within one year every player he acquired or signed was already jettisoned off of the team (many of them did not make it through the season with the Penguins).
The Derick Brassard trade, for one reason or another, has not panned out the way anyone expected to it after it was made.
This offseason saw the team trade Conor Sheary and Matt Hunwick in a salary dump trade, only to have it be followed up by the curious signings of Jack Johnson and 42-year-old Matt Cullen.
The Penguins had a similar slow start to the 2017-18 season and were able to pull themselves out of it, finish in second place in the Metropolitan Division, and get back to the second round of the playoffs. But they were still pretty far off from the team that won back-to-back Stanley Cups in the years before that.
So far this season they seem to be even further away from it, and now the general manager is left to contemplate some big changes. If he is going to make them, he needs to do better than he has the past two years.
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Adam Gretz is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow him on Twitter @AGretz.