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Rutherford’s comments a year apart are a world apart

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The Penguins’ GM likes this year’s team a lot more than he did this time 12 months ago

NHL: Stanley Cup Final-Media Day Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports

There’s a very striking difference in how Penguins’ general manager Jim Rutherford sees his team right now compared to just where they were 12 months ago. It was easy to see that Rutherford agreed with the ideals spelled out here on PensBurgh yesterday that this Pens team is playing a strong brand of hockey right now. It was evident in his comments Wednesday to the Post-Gazette.

“The wins aren’t coming as much as they should be. So we’ve got to get over that hump. And I believe we will,” Rutherford told the Post-Gazette. “I would suspect, from what I’ve seen, that this team is going to do well in the future.”

“There’s a lot of things I like about where we’re at now,” Rutherford said. “I feel more comfortable about where we’re at today than I have the last two years.”

Contrast that to the outburst Rutherford had a year ago to the day on his radio show:

“What I’m seeing I don’t like. Nobody likes it. We’re trying to figure out what’s gone wrong here.

“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.”

“We’re not playing with any energy or determination. We’re just trying to get through the games. These other teams are coming and outworking us. They deserve to beat us. In some of these games, they probably deserve to beat us worse than the score indicates.

The difference in tone is clear. The frustration from Rutherford was jumping off the page at this time last year. And last year it wouldn’t be too long until he tried to jolt the team into action with a series of trades, starting with shipping out popular teammate Carl Hagelin.

This year, Rutherford told the PG he’s not working on anything right now and is content to watch the season play out a bit more before assessing what is needed. Rutherford conceded not knowing if this version will be the full post-deadline Penguin team, which is wise. They have cap space and some future assets available to move to improve this year in the areas that might need it (like a skilled winger or defensive upgrade).

The “eye test” of Rutherford is supported by statistics too. As Adam Gretz laid out here the other day, the Penguins’ underlying metrics in 2019-20 are very strong, and for the most part the team has been pretty cohesive in their effort and impressive relative to the rest of the league.

They still have worries, every team in a salary cap league is bound to be imperfect. The Pens have been dogged by injuries to key players. Last night they had to play the Islanders with $12.5 million worth of players in Kris Letang and Patric Hornqvist in the injury bay, and Evgeni Malkin, Alex Galchenyuk and Bryan Rust are all key players who have missed more of 2019-20 than they’ve been available to play in so far.

The power play has suffered as well, the talent level has been lesser in Malkin’s absence and the trade of Phil Kessel. The goaltending has been average overall, mostly good but a few outlying poor performances has dragged it down.

Still, there is a lot to like. The Penguins are very deep up front and younger than last year. John Marino has emerged to join a four other defenders as good options to play. Sidney Crosby and Jake Guentzel started the season on an absolute heater.

Now, as Rutherford said, all that’s left are the wins. In the past two games the Pens have turned 3-0 holes into furious comebacks. While they’ll love to avoid the “fall behind big early in games” part of the script, they’ve also shown to be resilient. Breaking the Islanders’ 10-game winning streak on Thursday will also add to the confidence levels.

One thing is for sure though, the mood in and around the team right now compared to early November last year is a complete 180, and for the Pens and their manager, that’s a very good feeling to have.