Kovacevic: Penguins come together at table
PHILADELPHIA — It’s hard to imagine how haphazard the Penguins’ table at the NHL Draft must have come across to the casual observer inside Wells Fargo Center this past weekend.
One head of the table was shared by Mike Johnston and Rick Tocchet, the new coach and his assistant, who’d only met five days earlier.
At the other head sat Jim Rutherford, the almost-as-new GM who, despite having taken his post 22 days earlier, hadn’t so much as shaken the hands of his holdover scouts until arriving here. The coaching search had taken all his time.
Off to one side were Rutherford’s three lieutenants – Jason Botterill, Bill Guerin and Tom Fitzgerald – all of whom have been publicly challenged by Rutherford to vie for the GM’s post within the now-famous “two or three years” Rutherford plans to stay on.
Off to the other side were the scouts mostly responsible for eight awful drafts under Ray Shero, all of whom had to be wondering if their next check would be severance pay.
One happy family, huh?
But wait. There would be even more once the first round opened Friday night.
After the first half-dozen picks, Botterill conceded his chair to Ron Burkle, the franchise’s billionaire co-owner who’s seldom seen in public but suddenly was front and center on a nationally televised event. To Burkle’s right came David Morehouse, the team president who’s been adamant he’ll have nothing to do with hockey operations.
Oh, and right with that pack was Jason Karmanos, the analytics whiz Rutherford brought up from Carolina, every bit as animated in this discussion as the big bosses.
And somehow from all this chaos emerged some seriously smart, cohesive thinking that led to the James Neal trade and, maybe, will offer a road map to navigate what by all rights should be a tumultuous summer.
“Honestly, it’s because I think we all have basically the same vision for the Pittsburgh Penguins,” Guerin was telling me Saturday on the draft floor. He motioned back to the table. “I mean, if you look at us over there, there’s a lot that people don’t know how it’s going to all work. There’s a lot we don’t know. But I like what I see, man. I like it a lot.”
‘It’s about playoffs’
I don’t know how any of this will work out, either, and I’ve been saying that since a confounding front-office search resulted in Rutherford’s hire, followed by a confounding search that resulted in Johnston’s hire.
It’s all felt unfamiliar, at times uncomfortable.
But I’ll also reiterate this: Who cares how the Penguins’ new management goes about doing the right thing so long as they do it?
Guerin is right that there’s one vision being shared above all: This team need to get tougher.
Toughness can be measured many ways, so it’s critical to understand that this management doesn’t gauge by hitting, fighting or any of that 1970s stuff.
Rather, it’s primarily aimed at puck possession.
“What are you going to do, and what are we going to do as a coaching staff, for the Penguins to keep control of the puck? That’s what it’s about,” Tocchet said. “Show me a tough player, and I’ll show you someone who can take a hit to make a play. Show me someone willing to take a hit without retaliating. That’s tough.”
He should know.
This thinking explains why, in my interviews of several people at that table this weekend, there was an almost joyful approval of the Neal trade that brought wingers Patric Hornqvist and Nick Spaling from Nashville.
Johnston insisted he had no first-hand input on the trade: “Jim’s the GM, and Jim knows the kind of player I’m looking for from all the talks we’ve had.” But he also added: “Those two are great additions for what we want to do.”
I don’t doubt it. Hornqvist is far superior offensively to Spaling, but they’re similar in that they’re what hockey folks call “200-foot players,” meaning effective in all three zones and all facets. Both will take that hit to make that play. And of Hornqvist specifically, Nashville GM David Poile had this to say here: “He’s a heart-and-soul player. Plays hard every night. Goes to the dirty areas, the hard areas. Takes physical abuse.”
Stays out of the box, too.
That’s toughness that pays, especially in the playoffs.
“It’s about the playoffs,” Rutherford said. “The decisions we’re making, the discussions we’re having, they’re about putting together the best hockey team we can have for the playoffs. Not everyone’s always going to be on the same page, but we’ll all agree on that.”
‘This is Jim’s show’
Rutherford felt some of that unfamiliarity at the table this weekend.
“It’s funny,” he said, “but I know a lot of people in hockey, a lot of people at these other tables here, and the one I’ve known the least is Pittsburgh’s.”
“But it’s coming together. These scouts have a different process for how they do things, and I had to get up to speed. But it happens.”
The many various voices at the table are being heard, I’ve been assured. Rutherford has instructed his lieutenants that he doesn’t want yes men. He’s pushing them, challenging them.
But make no mistake who’s in charge.
“This is Jim’s team,” Guerin said. “This is Jim’s show.”
This was Jim’s trade, too, by all accounts. Rutherford has liked Hornqvist for years. That’s why, after hearing from roughly half the league about Neal, he and Poile locked in on each other for the week leading to the trade. Nashville openly covets offense, and Rutherford openly covets more of what Hornqvist brings.
He sure doesn’t sound done, either.
“We have the great core with Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin, and we’ll build around that,” Rutherford said. “With what we’re doing and the way Mike wants the centers to be the focus of our system, it’s up to us to make that happen.”
Rutherford dropped more hints Saturday that he’ll make a hard push for a July 1 free agent to skate alongside Malkin, possibly his old Russian mate Nikolai Kulemin of Toronto. He hasn’t ruled out more trades, either.
But the change will be cultural, too. And there will be no exceptions, not even Crosby and Malkin. When I asked the people at that table, for example, if Hornqvist could play with Malkin, the unanimous — and strikingly passionate — response was that Crosby and Malkin both need to do more to improve their linemates rather than vice versa.
Man, was that refreshing to hear.
A ton of work remains. Probably a ton of turnover, too. And, based on early precedent, some of it will happen in a way that has us scratching our heads.
But so far, it’s been most encouraging to sense that the common goal isn’t succeeding in September but, rather, next spring.