We had the honor and pleasure of spending some time on the phone today with Mike Rupp. The forward played 609 NHL games in a career from 2003-14, including 162 games with the Penguins from 2009-11. You can find Mike on twitter at @Rupper17 and you can also find him on your television doing studio analysis for the NHL Network at nights, as well as AT&T Sports Network (formerly known as Root Sports) at intermissions during Pens games on Mondays and Tuesday.
Pensburgh: In your 2 years in Pittsburgh, you had your season-best stats in your whole career for goals, assists and points, and also your second highest season as well. Could you talk to your adjustment to an uptempo team like the Pens after spending much of your career on a tight-checking team like the Devils?
Rupp: It was fun, it was really night and day by comparison of the two teams. When I played in Pittsburgh it was when Dan Bylsma was the coach, and he gave us all leniency to play offensively and take chances. Not just Sid and Geno on the top lines, but everyone was encouraged to take chances. I remember the GM at the time, Ray Shero, said to me “we have Crosby, Malkin and Staal and at any time you could find yourself playing on any one of their lines, so you always have to be ready.” A player like me, I might have played half my minutes on the fourth line, then I would slide up and have some minutes with the top guys for most of the games.
I don’t think people realize sometimes but all the guys in the NHL, they were all 50-goal scorers back in the day either in juniors or lower leagues where they came from. I realized I probably couldn’t do that in a league like the NHL, so I had to make adjustments and simplify my game and go to the net. Sid and Geno will be complex, they’ll take care of all the complicated stuff, all you have to do is play to your strengths and keep it simple.
Pensburgh: I ask about joining the Pens because you came over at a similar age (29) that Ryan Reaves is right now (30) and do you think that is has similarities to Reaves coming over from a system like the Blues have run compared with Pittsburgh?
Rupp: I never realized that, that’s probably a pretty great comparable. I mean just look at last year, Reaves had some highlight reel passes, some really nice goals — he did score 7 of ‘em, don’t forget. He’s a big guy, but he can really skate.
He’s a really tough guy and even though we all know the game has changed and gone away from that, the main thing again is I would just say to keep it simple for a player like that. I do think that joining the Penguins, Reaves could have his best season coming up playing on a team with more offensive opportunities.
Pensburgh: I’m also on this topic because a lot of Penguins fans are anxious about the 4th line since Matt Cullen left with all the skill he had, and now a new direction with an “enforcer” in Reaves was added to the team. What do you make of the 4th line going forward?
Rupp: The thing that about Cullen is that, yeah while he did make that fourth line really good, the great value about him was he could bump up a line or two and be a solid center when one of the other centers were injured and really be able to rack up the points not just from the 4th line.
There’s something to be said about the team not trying to rush out and fill the void left by Bonino and Cullen. That they would do that says to me that the Penguins are very comfortable with what they have in-house as options for that fourth line.
You’ve got a guy like Carter Rowney who plays hard and I really like Josh Archibald too- he provides a lot of energy. When you can force guys and pressure the puck, you will get chances off the turnovers and that’s a great way to play.
Pensburgh: Traditionally in Pittsburgh whether it’s been Jordan Staal, Brandon Sutter or recently Bonino, the third line has had to do the heavy lifting starting a lot of faceoffs in the defensive zone, opening up more opportunities for Crosby and Malkin to crush the offensive zone starts. Does this have to change a little now with the personnel? Crosby and Malkin are still the top 2 scorers per 60 minutes at even, does it make sense to burden them with more two-way roles? Or just a necessity?
Rupp: The thing I always go back to is from the summer of 2009, the first time Crosby won the Cup. Everyone is partying and doing the things you do in a summer after that, and what does Sid do? He says I want to score more goals. I’m going to change my curve. Then he goes out and scores 51 goals the next season, I know because that was the year I joined the Pens and I was right there. Crosby worked that summer at getting better at faceoffs too, because he wants to be that guy a team can count on. Whether you’re down a goal and need him to go get one, or you’re up by a goal and need him to provide defense and support to keep the lead, he’s always wanted to be that type of player.
And, you know, I always go back to the playoff before that too, the Game 7 Stanley Cup Final in Detroit. Crosby was hurt and couldn’t finish the game and that’s a killer for a guy like that. He wanted to be out there so bad, and I never asked him about that or anything, but you could just tell getting to know him really well as I did in the two year stretch that we played together. So he had to watch guys like Craig Adams and Max Talbot and Jordan Staal be out there in the closing moments of the game, but make no mistake [Crosby] wants to be on the ice at all times.
Do I think he could do it? Well, Sidney Crosby is probably the most complete center in the game today. No, take that back, Sidney Crosby IS the most complete center in the game. Jonathan Toews is a great player and he was in that conversation for a while but his offensive production doesn’t hold up to what Crosby brings.
Sid can shoulder that burden and be the guy to fill that Bonino type of role to be relied more on defensively, as long as it wouldn’t affect his offensive numbers, which I don’t really think it would. He definitely could be that guy for the Pens until they add another center or find a younger guy to do it.
Pensburgh: With the 213 games the Pens have played in the last 2 years between regular season and playoffs, do you see that heavy toll as a potential factor as another season begins? Or by April when playoffs start again is it more or less about the same for all the teams and no real disadvantage since they all played 82 that season?
Rupp: It’s hard to say, in my career I was lucky enough to go to the playoffs just about every year, but I don’t know what your body feels like after two straight Cup runs. Not many do, since usually teams lose in the first or second round the next year after winning it.
I remember when we won the Cup in 2003 [with New Jersey] it was weird to be playing so deep into the year, we won the Cup on June 9th. Usually in summer you can get what your body needs physically to get ready, and use certain dates as a measuring stick to get going again. But going deep you can’t take off too much time or get too out of shape because there’s not enough time to get back into shape.
After the season, I would usually slack and eat fast food every day for a month or something and then have time to get back in shape but you can’t do that in a short summer! (laughs)
I really think it’s more about how teams deal with the complacency though. These days in this league the mindset is more important than anything with how [the champs] handle moving onto the next challenge. So I would think the Pens should probably be alright since they already know what it takes and the challenges ahead.
Pensburgh: What team do you think poses the biggest threat to the Penguins chances of a three-peat?
Rupp: In the East this year, I think it will be Pittsburgh, and if not Pittsburgh than maybe Tampa Bay. The West is more wide open, it’s hard to say without seeing any games yet. I like Dallas, but they’ve got a lot of new people in there, we’ll have to see how it all comes together. For the strongest teams, I like Minnesota, I like Edmonton, and Anaheim too. Those would be my top three from the West right now.
Pensburgh: Ok, now it’s time for some rapid fire questions:
Who scores more points this year: Phil Kessel or Jake Guentzel? Guentzel
Who scores more goals this year: Crosby or Ovechkin? Ovechkin
True or false: Penguins will be 2017-18 Metropolitan division champions? True
Assuming both stay healthy who is scoring title champion, Connor McDavid, Crosby or someone else? Ooh that’s a tough one. [Long pause] All are healthy, huh? Gonna say..McDavid.
Pensburgh: Thank you for your time and we look forward to seeing you this season again on the NHL Network and on AT&TSN for Pens games!