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Penguins GM opens up can of worms

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Pittsburgh Penguins general manager Jim Rutherford puts his coach in a tough situation with comments about lineup decisions.

Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports

Penguins GM Jim Rutherford turned up a lot of heat on coach Mike Johnston last night, whether he meant to or not. From Puck Daddy, when it comes to coach Mike Johnston making Daniel Sprong a healthy scratch in 8 straight games:

"I have been urging the coach to get him in there," Rutherford told Josh Yohe of DKonPittsburghSports.com (subscription required). "We need him in there so we can get a better look at him."

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Rutherford’s said a lot this season. Sometimes he’s been very "stay the course" with the Penguins as they’ve struggled, confident they could play out of it. In speaking to Yohe about the necessity of "new blood" in the lineup, however, he sounded a bit more alarmist:

"Well, we’re going to have to do something to change things up," he said. "We have underachieved. We’ve definitely underachieved. We’re in a position where we shouldn’t be right now, and we know it. I am going to have to take a look at few things. Something needs to change."

Rutherford did also mention that when it comes to the lineup, "I don’t ever tell [Johnston] who to put in there." But putting him on blast like this surely means the Pens have to play Sprong next time out. It's a tough situation for Johnston to be in, especially since he's got an over-flow of natural right-wingers already with Phil Kessel, Patric Hornqvist, Beau Bennett and Eric Fehr (plus Pascal Dupuis, who has been playing left-wing).

No matter what comes of this Rutherford comment, and it'll probably be walked back or tempered soon and likely blow over, it still shows a disconnect within the Penguins management. The coach isn't playing a player the GM wants him to. Just guessing, but the coach probably can't be happy with the overall personnel that the GM has supplied him, being as the Penguins defense has waved goodbye to Brooks Orpik, Matt Niskanen, Paul Martin and Christian Ehrhoff since Rutherford took over, replacing them with no external, proven defensemen.

The Pens enjoyed some beach volleyball and had a pretty slack schedule recently (with only 3 games in the first 8 days of December), but that is about to change in a major way. Starting with Wednesday's game against Colorado, the Pens play 7 games in 13 days up to Christmas break. After Colorado, the schedule gets tough too with the next 4 games all against teams ahead of Pittsburgh in the standings.

The road ahead looks rocky for the Pens, it will be imperative to make it through this next stretch and get to Christmas in one piece and hopefully establish more of a cohesive identity. Getting on the same page off the ice should have been a prerequisite from the start, but obviously needs to happen there as well between Rutherford and Johnston to work in the same direction.