Tim Benz: Who was Penguins GM Jim Rutherford really talking about when he ripped his team?
Penguins general manager Jim Rutherford has an increasingly rare quality when it comes to those in sports management or coaching.
He’s honest with the public.
Rutherford doesn’t waste time with double-talk or smokescreens or unnecessary layers of secrecy. He tells you what he is thinking.
Such was the case Wednesday before his team’s 2-1 loss in Washington, the fifth in a row for these struggling Penguins. “GMJR” called out his roster during his own radio show on 105.9 the X.
But even Rutherford has his limits. While challenging just about all aspects of the club, for the most part, he stopped short of airing out individuals.
There were a few exceptions. He noted that Dominic Simon might be overextended in the top six and perhaps should be eased in on the bottom six more. And, of Daniel Sprong, he said, “We hoped Sprong would be in the top nine. He hasn’t jumped ahead of anybody on the right side, so he’s playing on the fourth line. It’s not ideal.”
For as forthcoming as Rutherford was, aside from those examples, he talked in generalities about where the Penguins have come up short this year — something they’ve done eight times in 14 games.
Broad areas of the club were under fire in Rutherford’s discourse. For the most part, though, he didn’t single out individuals.
That’s where we come in.
So, let’s drill a little deeper into Rutherford’s comments and see who specifically he’s referencing.
“Has this team been together too long? It’s something I always 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.”
Ouch. That’s damning. So, who is he talking about? I doubt it’s Sidney Crosby or Evgeni Malkin. There’s changing the team, and then there’s rebuilding the whole franchise. Suggesting a trade of one of those two would be doing the latter.
If you are guessing Kris Letang, that may have made sense last year. But Letang has played better this season. And with the defensive depth thin as it is, I don’t see a Letang trade coming.
Phil Kessel? I suppose that’s possible. He has just one power-play goal. And maybe his inability to fit anywhere besides with Evgeni Malkin since Nick Bonino left has gotten too cumbersome. Plus, he’s slumping, registering no goals and only one assist to go along with a minus-5 since Oct. 30.
However, if they were going to move Kessel, I figured something that seismic would’ve been done in the offseason. And, to be fair, he has as many goals as Crosby and Malkin — seven — so far this year.
Who else are the options to trade? A guy with a bright future like Jake Guentzel, who plays with Crosby? Patric Hornqvist, who you just signed long term? Matt Murray, who is 24 with two Stanley Cups and was chosen over Marc-Andre Fleury?
Unlikely. Short of any of those moves, though, I hardly see a trade of anyone else qualifying as “breaking up the team.”
“At a young age, guys win Stanley Cups and a lot of guys go their whole career and they don’t even get close to it. We’ve got some young guys that won a couple, then they get bigger contracts and then they kind of settle in. They forget what got them to where they are today.”
Bryan Rust and Olli Maatta. It has to be them. Both won two titles here.
The Penguins rewarded Rust with a four-year, $14 million contract in June. He has one goal and two assists this season. Maatta has three more years after this one at $4.08 million per year. He’s done little to make that contract look good in 2018.
I have to ask, though, have those guys truly “forgotten what got them to where they are?” Or are they just overpaid for their skill levels?
Hornqvist got big money last year, too. But, at 31, he doesn’t count as a “young guy.”
Brian Dumoulin could qualify after getting a $24 million, six-year deal. Although he’s second on the team in average ice time per game and tops in plus-minus. So, I’d be surprised if he is the target of Rutherford’s ire here.
Regarding secondary scoring: “It’s almost like the guys come to the game and say, ‘Let’s just let the top guys do it. Let Sid and Geno and Phil and Letang carry us, and we’ll just get through the game and move on to the next game,’ and forget about the work ethic it takes or forget about the role they play.”
Take your pick. Rust, Guentzel, Hornqvist, Riley Sheahan, Derick Brassard (when healthy), Matt Cullen, Carl Hagelin, etc. No one is exempt on this one.
Discussing players in contract walk years: “Maybe they change their game. Maybe they think scoring more goals or getting more points is what’s going to get them more money. So they get away from their game, what their role is.”
This is easy to figure out. Sheahan, Brassard, Hagelin, Cullen, Chad Ruhwedel, and Derek Grant are the team’s players who will be unrestricted next season. My assumption is the first two or three guys on that list are the ones being discussed in that quote.
In some cases, that strikes me as a bit tough, given that Brassard is injured and Sheahan and Hagelin aren’t necessarily goal-hunting to excess. They simply can’t score consistently. Period.
“We’re getting inconsistent goaltending.”
That’s obvious. I’m doubting that Rutherford is holding Casey DeSmith’s feet to the flames with this message. Unless it is a warning shot that Tristan Jarry may get called up.
Jarry’s numbers haven’t been good in the AHL, though. He’s holding a 3.14 goals-against average, a save percentage of .897 and a record of 3-3-1.
This was a jab at Murray. Rutherford clearly wants to see a reasonable facsimile of the 2016 and 2017 playoff versions of Murray throughout a full regular season. A 4-4-1 record with a 3.87 goals against and a .886 save percentage is a far cry from that.
Before we go, let me add two more. Maybe some accountability should be put at the feet of a coach who is constantly throwing darts at a board with his lineup combinations and a general manager who assembled the roster in the first place.
You know, since Rutherford isn’t comfortable naming names.
Tim Benz is a Tribune-Review staff writer. You can contact Tim at firstname.lastname@example.org or via Twitter @TimBenzPGH.