Patric Hornqvist

Getty

Pressure is on Rutherford, Sullivan after Kessel trade

7 Comments

The Phil Kessel era in Pittsburgh reached its inevitable conclusion on Saturday evening when the Penguins shipped the star winger to the Arizona Coyotes for forward Alex Galchenyuk and defense prospect Pierre-Olivier Joseph. It finally ended months of rumors, speculation, and even some drama that constantly swirled around an inconsistent regular season and disappointing postseason that seemed to give management and the coaching staff an unquenchable thirst for change.

Whenever that change was discussed, everything that was talked about always made Kessel the most likely candidate to be on the move.

General manager Jim Rutherford repeatedly talked about too many players on the team becoming too comfortable and complacent.

There was talk about commitment and “playing the right way.”

There were salary cap concerns as the Penguins were once again pressed firmly against the ceiling and having little flexibility to make the changes they wanted to make.

Then there was the seemingly tumultuous relationship between Kessel and head coach Mike Sullivan as the two did not always see eye-to-eye.

After trying to send Kessel to the Minnesota Wild earlier this summer, only to have Kessel utilize his no-trade clause and block the deal, Rutherford finally found a match with the Coyotes, reuniting Kessel and Rick Tocchet, his former assistant coach in Pittsburgh.

Kessel and Rutherford seemed to disagree over the nature of the departure, with Rutherford saying on Saturday that Kessel had requested a trade during the season, and Kessel simply saying that is not how it happened. Who is telling the truth is anyone’s guess, but now that the trade is completed the how and why is mostly irrelevant. The only thing that matters is what the Penguins’ roster now looks like and what they do in the coming weeks and months (and years) to make it better.

In the short-term it is almost impossible to argue that the roster is better from a talent standpoint.

[Related: Penguins send Kessel to Coyotes for Galchenyuk]

That puts a ton of pressure on Rutherford and Sullivan because they now have some big tests ahead of them, and they are going to need to be right every step of the way.

The popular sentiment coming out of Pittsburgh in the immediate aftermath is the Penguins probably did better than expected given how little leverage they had in trying to make a Kessel trade. It was obvious the Penguins were motivated to move him and he had significant control over where he went, reportedly loading his approved trade list with teams he knew the Penguins would not trade him to. If I were a betting man, I would wager that list included a lot of Metropolitan Division teams, as well as maybe Boston and Toronto, Kessel’s two previous stops in the NHL. That certainly put them in a corner.

Getting a good NHL player and promising prospect in that context probably is a pretty decent haul if you were hellbent on trading him.

But you don’t win championships or give yourself a chance to win championships by simply doing better than everyone expected you to do when trading an elite offensive player.

You win championships by having better players than everybody else. That is now the short-term problem for the Penguins.

At this point there are not any secrets when it comes to Galchenyuk and what he is as a player. He possesses a lot of the same flaws that Kessel does defensively and away from the puck, but does not provide the strength of being a world-class offensive player. You may not like Kessel’s defensive play, but there are only a very short list of players in the world that are better than him when it comes to producing offense. You at least have that going for you when you have him on your roster. If you are going to be a one-trick pony, that is a pretty damn good trick to have at your disposal.

I do not know that Kessel’s style of play, approach, or attitude changed all that much over the past few years. He is what he is as a player and he is who he is as a person. What changed is the Penguins stopped winning Stanley Cups. You tolerate the quirky, all-offense, no-defense winger when he is helping to hang banners and taking part in parades.

When all of that stuff stops, it is no longer something most hockey men want to put up with.

Now the Penguins have one less elite offensive player, and unless Galchenyuk somehow puts it all together and scores 30 goals for the first time in three years — a season that is now looking more and more like the outlier in his career — they downgraded their roster in the short-term.

Arguing against that as we sit today is arguing against facts and logic.

Because of that, the entire trade, as well as the direction of the Penguins after the trade, hinges almost completely on the development of Joseph, what the Penguins do with the new salary cap space they now have, and whether or not they were right about needing to change the culture of the team … and if that even matters.

This is where the challenge for Rutherford and Sullivan comes in.

Joseph is an intriguing add because despite the claims of Rutherford earlier this offseason when he said this is the best defense he has ever had in Pittsburgh, his defense is actually quite a mess once you get beyond Kris Letang and Brian Dumoulin. They also didn’t have anyone in the prospect pool that looked to be even worthy of a mention as a top prospect.

Joseph, almost by default, immediately becomes the team’s best defense prospect and actually plays a style that would seem to suit the Penguins when they are at their best. That is good. The key is going to be developing him into something useful at the NHL level. The problem is the Penguins really haven’t done a good job of developing young players over the past few years. They have to get it right with Joseph, not only to justify this move, but because they NEED someone like him to be good. But that is probably a year or two away from becoming a factor, not only because of where Joseph in his development (he has never played above the QMJHL) but because of the logjam the Penguins still have on their blue line.

The more immediate issue is the newfound salary cap space.

When it comes to this offseason, the Kessel-for-Galchenyuk swap doesn’t really do anything to remedy the team’s short-term cap issues as it only saves them about $1.9 million. That gives them, via CapFriendly, around $5 million in salary cap space.

Given their own RFA’s they have to re-sign, probably wanting to keep a little wiggle room under the cap at the start of the season, and the cost of any new UFA signing it doesn’t really give the Penguins much added flexibility under the cap without making another move to ship out more salary. Rutherford hinted he may now be able to add someone on Monday at the start of free agency, but unless someone takes a huge discount to go to Pittsburgh, or he makes another trade, he will only be adding a fringe player around the edge.

They do not see any real salary cap savings until next summer (and the summer after that), and that is assuming they do NOT re-sign Galchenyuk. If they do, he probably costs at least $5-6 million and pretty much erases that newfound cap space they got by trading Kessel. At that point they would be betting that Galchenyuk would be a better use of that cap space than Kessel would. Even taking into account a decline from Kessel, that seems like a tough bet to make.

The bigger issue, though, is that if Rutherford is going to make a move in free agency he has to do a better job than he has the past few years where he has not only slowly shifted the Penguins away from what made them a success, but has also made some objectively bad moves.

The Penguins are not in a salary cap crunch because they are paying their stars. It is because they have made some bad investments with their second-and third-tier players. How much better would their salary cap situation look this summer if they did not commit more than $7 million to the duo of Jack Johnson or Erik Gudbranson? Or the more than $5 million per year (for another five years) they have going to an aging and apparently rapidly declining Patric Hornqvist?

Just look at what the Penguins have done in free agency the past two offseasons.

  • In July 2017 they signed Antti Niemi to be their new backup goalie behind Matt Murray. Niemi didn’t last two months with the team before being waived.
  • That same summer they signed Matt Hunwick to a three-year, $6.75 million contract. It was a fit that was so bad from the start the Penguins had to trade Conor Sheary along with Hunwick just to dump salary one year ago to create cap space.
  • They used that new cap space to sign Jack Johnson to a five-year, $17 million contract exactly one year ago, a contract that has already become an albatross on their cap.

That is only the tip of the iceberg when it comes to the revolving door of other roster moves that have led to a decline in success.

Salary cap space is only as good as what you do with it. The Penguins have not maximized what little space they have had in recent years. That trend can not continue.

Then we get to Sullivan and the pressure that is now on him.

Whether it is the reality of the situation or not, the optics from the outside are that he won out over Kessel in what can probably only be loosely described as a power struggle. The player that didn’t conform to the way he wanted to play is gone. The culture changes and maybe the team begins to play the “right way” (in their view) as a result.

But all of it better work out for his sake because there can be no denying his seat is white hot after the way the team fizzled out in the playoffs. Sullivan is entering a season where he is a lame-duck coach, and the general manager does not seem to have much urgency when it comes to signing him to a contract extension.

Adding to the fire is that the Penguins just hired Mike Vellucci, the reigning Calder Cup winning coach in the American Hockey League, to be the new head coach of their top farm team in Wilkes-Barre/Scranton. That came after Vellucci mutually agreed to part ways with the Carolina Hurricanes organization. Why would he resign from an organization he has been a part of for so long, where he has had recent success, to take a lateral job in another organization?

In his words, it was because he was “presented with an exciting opportunity that makes sense for my future.”

Allow me to translate that: He thinks he has a faster path to an NHL head coaching job in Pittsburgh than he did in Carolina, and that would not be an incorrect assumption. He and Rutherford have a connection from their Carolina days, and he would seem to be the obvious in-house replacement if the team with the lame-duck coach stumbles out of the gate.

If you want to argue that the Penguins had to trade Kessel, there is plenty of evidence to suggest that they did. Maybe change was necessary. Maybe he was the significant core player on the roster that made sense to move. Maybe he wanted to move.

They still have a lot of work to do to get better as a result of it, no matter the reason, and they are not anywhere near getting there.

Unless something changes drastically in how they evaluate players, what they value in players, and how they utilize their salary cap space none of what took place over the past 24 hours will matter as they run the risk of their remaining championship window in the Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin, Kris Letang era closing even sooner than it needs to.

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.

Penguins GM doesn’t expect to trade Kessel

Getty Images
1 Comment

Maybe the Pittsburgh Penguins won’t trade Phil Kessel during this offseason, after all.

A few weeks ago, reports surfaced that Kessel decided not to waive his no-trade clause to complete a deal to the Minnesota Wild. The added obstacle of such a clause inspired an uncomfortable question: could the Penguins really “win” a trade involving Kessel?

It sounds like Penguins GM Jim Rutherford’s answer might be “No, at least not right now.”

Rutherford touched base with The Athletic’s Josh Yohe on several interesting topics (sub required), including the fact that he doesn’t expect to trade Kessel during the summer. Whether that’s totally Rutherford’s preference, or if it’s merely a reality he must accept, is up to interpretation. This quote makes it clear that the no-trade clause is certainly a factor:

“You have to understand that he has a no-trade clause and a lot of leverage,” Rutherford said. “In situations like this, it usually doesn’t work out so well for the team. That’s just the way it is. So, at this point, it looks to me that he will return at this season. That’s how I’m proceeding moving forward.”

Rutherford makes a point that should be emphasized: the Penguins don’t have to trade Kessel. This isn’t an emergency situation, and considering the context of a no-trade clause backing Pittsburgh into a corner, it’s possible that they’d only make things worse if they actually found at trade Kessel would OK.

Kessel’s 31, which isn’t the absolutely ideal age, but it’s not exactly ancient, either. His $6.8 million cap hit has been quite friendly to the Penguins over the years, and while it is more imposing as he gets older, it’s still a pretty fair price. While the aging curve could make it more of a detriment, it also isn’t the most dire situation, as it expires after 2021-22. Maybe the Penguins would prefer to spend their money on a younger player, but it’s not exactly an albatross.

(And, again, if it starts to really go sideways, at least the term isn’t too brutal. This isn’t a Milan Lucic situation.)

Kessel had exactly a point per game while playing the full 2018-19 regular season (82 in 82), with 27 of those points being goals. He was even more explosive in 2017-18, scoring 34 goals and 92 points in another full season, and Kessel’s been electric during the playoffs.

There aren’t a lot of Kessels out there: reasonably priced players who suit up for virtually every game, while delivering precious goals and impressive playoff production. You’re even less likely to find that sort of player at a reasonable $6.8M cap hit.

Now, it’s also true that Kessel is starting to show signs of age-related decline, and the once-excessive criticisms of his defensive work are now more valid. There’s more of a debate regarding whether Kessel brings more to the table than he takes away than ever before, or at least that debate’s become credible, rather than an obnoxious way to scapegoat a person who marches to the beat of their own drum.

There’s also the stuff that doesn’t show up on charts. If Kessel isn’t getting along with head coach Mike Sullivan or his teammates, that’s not ideal.

Yet, it’s also true that sports teams often succeed even when everyone isn’t best buddies.

If a Kessel trade can’t happen, it’s not ideal, but it’s also not the end of the world for the Penguins. For all we know, that clause might just protect the Penguins from themselves. After all, they haven’t exactly been making the best decisions lately.

Plenty of other decisions

Again, the Penguins didn’t get swept by the Islanders because of Kessel.

This team has other problems, and other choices to make, so it was interesting to read Rutherford’s other comments to Yohe.

  • Rutherford shot down talk of trading Evgeni Malkin, which is probably the most important point of all. You’re … probably not going to win a trade involving Malkin if you’re the Penguins.
  • Rutherford was noncommittal when it came to possibly extending Matt Murray and Justin Schultz, while giving a similar answer regarding Mike Sullivan. All three are set to enter contract years.

Murray is an especially interesting consideration. The Penguins were able to extend Murray in 2016 after he won the first of two Stanley Cups as a rookie. Pittsburgh did a nice job walking a tightrope, inking Murray for an economical $3.75M per year cap hit, even though he just won that Cup, in part because Marc-Andre Fleury was still on the roster. Then, MAF was gone to Vegas in the expansion draft after the Penguins’ repeat, and Pittsburgh still had a starter at a friendly price.

Injuries have lowered Murray’s value, and his perceived standing in the league, but maybe that context would allow Pittsburgh to extend him once more on a team-friendly contract?

Rutherford indicated that he has bigger fish to fry, what with trying to clear up some cap space and sign some RFAs, and that’s fair. Still, if I were Rutherford, I’d certainly try to line something up before 2019-20. As Rutherford mentioned, Murray went on a hot streak toward the end of last season, and could easily make his value skyrocket if he’s a) healthy and b) productive next season.

The 25-year-old is still set for RFA status after his current deal expires, which is another point in favor of the Penguins doing a great job with that deal. It’s plausible that the Penguins might get a relative bargain if they’re proactive here, and when you consider their cap challenges, getting a high-quality, prime-age goalie at a below-market rate is pretty crucial.

  • Again, Rutherford rightly said he wants to clear up cap space.

The dream would be to shed Jack Johnson‘s contract, which was baffling the day it was signed, and only looks more ill-advised today.

The Penguins should consider other painful choices, and one that sticks out is Patric Hornqvist. Hornqvist is a very nice player, when he can stay on the ice. Unfortunately, his hard-nosed style makes that challenging, and it’s only likely to become more of a challenge as time goes on. At 32, Hornqvist’s $5.3M through 2022-23 is pretty scary, particularly since he has to go to dirty areas to score, whereas players like Kessel are better able to produce while also limiting their vulnerability to injuries.

So, overall, the Penguins are reasonable in not trying to force a Kessel trade, at least not while he’s not on board. Trading other players, however, would likely be wise — and probably necessary.

MORE ON KESSEL, PENGUINS

James O’Brien is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @cyclelikesedins.

Can Penguins win a Phil Kessel trade?

Getty Images
1 Comment

The Pittsburgh Penguins face steep challenges as they aim to improve, and it sure seems like they’re in a tough spot to try to “win” a Phil Kessel trade … or really, break even.

The Athletic’s tandem of Josh Yohe and Michael Russo reports (sub required) that Kessel had been asked, and seemed to lean against, accepting a trade that would send Kessel and Jack Johnson to the Wild for Jason Zucker and Victor Rask. Sportsnet’s Elliotte Friedman followed up on that in 31 Thoughts, cementing the thought that Kessel vetoed a trade thanks to his no-trade clause, which allows him to potentially reject moves to all but eight other teams. Friedman also wonders if the Arizona Coyotes could be a potential trade fit for Kessel. Again, the theme seems to be that it might not be so easy to trade Kessel, especially if the Penguins can only find trades with teams who aren’t on Kessel’s eight-team “Yes” list.

Still, reporters such as TSN’s Bob McKenzie indicate that a Kessel trade is more a matter of “when, not if,” so let’s consider some of the factors involved, and get a sense of how the Penguins can make this summer a net positive.

Pondering that would-be trade

One can understand why the Penguins would be disappointed that the Wild trade didn’t work out, although that sympathy dissolves when you wonder if Pittsburgh’s basically trying to guilt Kessel into accepting a trade by letting this leak.

(You may notice the word “stubborn” coming up frequently regarding Kessel, even though he’s merely leveraging his contractual rights to that NTC. Who knows if Kessel even wants out?)

All things considered, moving out Kessel (31) and Johnson (32) for two younger players in Zucker (27) and Rask (26) is a boon, and not just because the cap difference is just about even.

While Pierre LeBrun indicates that there’s at least some chance Kessel might change his mind and OK that Wild trade, let’s assume that he would not. There are still elements of this deal that the Penguins should chase.

Kessel + a contract they want to get rid of?

To be more precise, if the Penguins can’t find a good “hockey” trade where the immediate on-ice result is equal (if not an outright win for Pittsburgh), there could be value in saving money. The Penguins have quite a few contracts they should shed, though I’d exclude periodically rumored trade targets Evgeni Malkin and Kris Letang because, in my opinion, it would be a really bad idea to trade either of them.

So let’s consider some of the contracts Pittsburgh should attempt to move, either with Kessel or in a separate deals.

  • First, consider Kessel. He’s 31, and his $6.8 million cap hit runs through 2021-22. Naturally, every year counts for a Penguins team whose window of contention could slam shut if Malkin and Sidney Crosby hit the aging curve hard … but really, that term isn’t the end of the world.
  • Johnson, 32, is a disaster. While $3.25M isn’t massive, teams are almost always better off with him on the bench than on the ice, and the term is a headache as it only expires until after 2022-23. For all the focus on Kessel’s alleged flaws, getting rid of Johnson would be the biggest boon of that would-be Wild trade. (Especially since I’d argue that Rask has a better chance of at least a mild career rebound than Johnson, as he’s likely to at least have a better shooting percentage than 2018-19’s pitiful 5.5 percent.)
  • Patric Hornqvist is a good player and an even better story as a player who’s gone from “Mr. Irrelevant” of the 2005 NHL Draft to a regular 20+ goal scorer and player who scored a Stanley Cup-clinching goal. That said, he’s an extremely banged-up 32, making his $5.3M cap hit a bit scary, being that it runs through 2022-23. It’s not as sexy of a story, yet the Penguins should be even more eager to move Hornqvist than they are to move Kessel. (And, again, for the record: they’re both good players … just risky to remain that way.)
  • Olli Maatta, 24, carries a $4.083M cap hit, and his name has surfaced in rumors for years.

There’s a scenario where the Penguins find a parallel trade, combining Kessel and Johnson or another contract they want to get rid of for two full-priced, NHL roster players, like the ones they would have received in Zucker and Rask.

Maybe the Penguins would find some success in merely trying to open up cap space, though?

Theoretically, they could try to move several of the players above while either adding Zucker-types, or perhaps gaining so much cap room that they might aim for something truly bold, like landing a whopper free agent such as Artemi Panarin or Erik Karlsson?

Heck, they could just open up space to pounce on a trade later. Perhaps a lane would open up where they could land someone like P.K. Subban?

Keeping Kessel?

There certainly seems to be some urgency regarding a Kessel trade, yet it remains to be seen if the Penguins can pull a decent one off.

Pensburgh goes over a trade-killing strategy Kessel may deploy, where he’d stack his eight-team trade list with a mixture of teams that are some combination of: a) Pittsburgh’s rivals, who they may not want to trade with, b) cap-challenged teams who might not be able to manage that $6.8M, and c) teams who simply wouldn’t want an aging winger.

If the Penguins view the situation as truly untenable, then it would indeed be rough to be “stuck” with Kessel.

Yet, would it really be that bad of a thing?

Now, sure, Kessel’s game has declined, with there being at least some argument that his defensive shortcomings overwhelm his prolific point production.

On the other hand, Kessel’s sniping abilities really are rare, and there’s something to be said for having a source of reliable goalscoring in a league where that’s still a tough commodity to come by. Kessel scored 27 goals and 82 points this past season, managed 34 and 92 in 2017-18, and has been a fantastic playoff performer for Pittsburgh. Sometimes teams risk overthinking things, and the Penguins can be charged with exactly that when you consider their dicey decisions during the last couple of years.

Would it be awkward? Probably, but sometimes NHL teams get too obsessed with harmony instead of results. Everyone doesn’t necessarily need to be best friends to win games.

Yes, sure it would be ideal if the Penguins could move along from Kessel while either remaining as strong a team as before, or getting a little better. Especially since Kessel’s value may dip as he ages. But with every other team well aware of the Penguins’ predicament, GM Jim Rutherford could really struggle to find a fair deal. And, even if Rutherford does, it’s no guarantee that Kessel will give it the go-ahead.

The awkward scenario of Kessel staying might not be as bad as it sounds, as he’s delivered on the ice, whether there’s been bad feelings behind the scenes, or not.

***

If you’re anxious about the Penguins trading away Kessel, then this can seem like a grim situation. There’s no denying that it will be a challenge to move him, considering all of the variables. Things get brighter when you ponder other possibilities, particularly the thought that the Penguins might be able to move a problem contract like Jack Johnson’s albatross.

Really, things could work out, even if – like with the building of the Blues and Bruins – it’s easier said than done. Who knows, maybe Rutherford will wield the sort of deft trading skill he showed when the Penguins landed Kessel in the first place?

James O’Brien is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @cyclelikesedins.

Slovakia stuns U.S. 4-1 in world hockey championship opener

AP Images
4 Comments

KOSICE, Slovakia — Matus Sukel scored early in the first period and Slovakia went on to beat the U.S. 4-1 on home ice Friday night, a stunning result on the opening day of the world hockey championship.

Alex DeBrincat had a goal off assists from Patrick Kane and Jack Eichel to pull the Americans into a tie midway through the period in the Group A game, but they couldn’t score again against Patrik Rybar.

Erik Cernak and Tomas Tatar put the Slovaks up 3-1 in the second period and Michal Kristof gave them a three-goal cushion in the third.

Cory Schneider made 32 saves for the Americans. They will face France on Sunday.

In Bratislava in Group B, the Czech Republic beat Sweden 5-2. Jakub Vrana scored twice for the Czechs against the two-time defending champion Swedes.

Patric Hornqvist and Oskar Lindblom scored in the second period to give Sweden a 2-1 lead. The Czech Republic responded with four straight goals, including one into an empty net after Henrik Lundqvist was pulled to add an extra skater.

Czech goaltender Patrik Bartosak kept the Swedes scoreless in two of three periods in his world championship debut.

Earlier in Group A in Kosice, Kaapo Kakko scored twice, including an empty-net goal with 34 seconds left, to lift Finland to a 3-1 victory over Canada. Arttu Ilomaki had a tiebreaking goal early in the third period and Kevin Lankinen finished with 20 saves for the Finns.

Canada’s Jonathan Marchessault tied the game midway through the first period and Matt Murray stopped 24 shots. The Canadians, who won the world championship in 2016 and 2015, opened the tournament a day after Hockey Canada and the Toronto Maple Leafs agreed to hold John Tavares out because of his oblique injury.

In the Group B opener in Bratislava, The Russians got off to a strong start with Evgeny Dadonov scoring twice and Nikita Kucherov adding one in a 5-2 victory over Norway.

What now? Penguins face crucial offseason after flameout

8 Comments

PITTSBURGH (AP) — Jim Rutherford’s question was rhetorical. The answer – whenever the architect the Pittsburgh Penguins general manager arrives at it – will determine how the franchise emerges from the rubble of a first-round playoff sweep at the hands of the New York Islanders.

”Are guys too content with where they’re at in their careers because they’ve won a couple of Stanley Cups?” Rutherford wondered aloud Thursday as his team packed up for its longest offseason in 13 years.

Just 22 months removed from becoming the first team in a generation to win consecutive championships , captain Sidney Crosby and the rest of the Penguins are at a crossroads.

”It’s disappointing to have this long of an offseason,” said Crosby, who posted the sixth 100-point season of his career but managed just one against the Islanders. ”It’s been a while since we’ve had this much time really.”

Failing to three-peat by losing to the eventual Stanley Cup champions in six hotly contested games against an archrival – as Pittsburgh did last spring when it lost to Washington in the second round – is one thing. Scoring just six goals while getting outskated, outplayed and outworked by a team with a new coach, a journeyman goaltender and little playoff success over the last quarter century is quite another.

”(The Islanders) played the right way and they were eager to win,” Rutherford said. ”They were determined and the Penguins weren’t.”

Maybe the end shouldn’t have been so stunning. Though the Penguins extended their playoff streak to 13 years and counting, they only sporadically played the kind of intelligent and responsible hockey coach Mike Sullivan has tried to instill from the moment he took over in December 2015.

Injuries to stars like Evgeni Malkin and Kris Letang didn’t help. Neither did a significant amount of roster turnover. Yet Pittsburgh’s best stretch came during a 10-3-3 sprint through March , one the Penguins made with Malkin and Letang available only occasionally. Sullivan pointed to an increased ”cooperative effort” by the group with Malkin and Letang missing, a key ingredient in ”what it takes to win.”

When they returned full time for the playoffs, the cohesion vanished.

Malkin ended a wildly uneven year by struggling to find the dominance that once came so easily. Letang, whose play over the first four-plus months helped the Penguins rebound from a decidedly sluggish start, had a handful of miscues against the Islanders that led immediately to pucks in the back of the Pittsburgh net.

The question going forward is whether Letang, Malkin and forwards Patric Hornqvist and Phil Kessel – all of whom will be 32 or older when next seasons open – can make the necessary adjustments to their respective games over the next six months to make sure they stick around for the rest of a championship window Rutherford insists remains open.

All four have had highly successful careers and were integral parts of the core group that raised two Stanley Cup banners to the rafters at PPG Paints Arena. All four, however, also have a penchant for taking risks, gambles they could afford to make because their talent often helped them recover when those gambles went awry.

That wiggle room is gone. The evidence came during a series in which the Penguins led for less than five minutes.

Crosby – who will be in the conversation for the Selke Trophy given annually to the league’s top defensive forward – insists his longtime teammates can adapt.

Letang isn’t really sure he has to. Asked if he will take a more defensive-oriented approach heading into his 14th season, he bristled.

”At the end of the day, yeah, I wish I could have done something else at different times, but I don’t think the question is to change my whole game,” Letang said. ”I’m not going to change three plays in my whole year for the type of game I play.”

And there’s the dilemma for the front office. The Penguins have to decide whether they need to adjust their style or their personnel – or both. Whether they can find takers for veterans with their names on the Cup multiple times but also multiple years left on lucrative contracts will play a factor. Either way, Sullivan believes there needs to be a renewed focus when his team – however it is constituted – returns in September.

”The challenge is to make sure that there’s 100 percent buy-in throughout the lineup,” Sullivan said. ”I think the area of our identity that we lost a little bit is the hard-to-play-against aspect.”

NOT SO THIN BLUE LINE

Rutherford defended the play of his defenders, Erik Gudbranson and Jack Johnson specifically. Both are big bodies not known for their skating. Gudbranson was solid after arriving in a trade with Vancouver while Johnson played all 82 games before being a curious healthy scratch for Game 1 against the Islanders.

”I think our defense is probably the best that’s it has been since I’ve been here as a group,” Rutherford said.

SEE YA DAD?

Matt Cullen had seven goals and 13 assists and remained a faceoff wizard – particularly in the defensive zone – in his 21st season. The 42-year-old, however, seems headed for retirement to spend more time with his wife and three boys. His leadership and character will be difficult to replace.

”I think just he’s such a pro in the way he approached every day, the way he led by example, the way he treated guys,” Crosby said. ”He can still play.”

More AP NHL: https://apnews.com/NHL and https://twitter.com/AP-Sports