One of the best things about Jim Rutherford as a fan or follower of the Penguins is that he typically says what he means and he means what he says. We could all see it last year when Rutherford was openly pretty disgusted about how his team was playing. He thought they were uninspired, too comfortable after winning a few Stanley Cups. He didn’t like the mix in the room or the performance on the ice. So he went about changing it in a big way. Whether it was moving players like Carl Hagelin and later Phil Kessel, Rutherford set and accomplished re-shaping the team.
This season, however, it’s been a different story. Rutherford has been pleased by the play of his team. Even as serious and important injuries have struck and caused literally every key skater on the team to miss a chunk of time, the Pens have found ways to win. They’ve been more cohesive and stronger on the ice.
Accordingly, Rutherford has been in no hurry to make tweaks. He traded Erik Gudbranson in order to solve his salary cap math problem of being over the limit, but otherwise has held pat. Rutherford has said several times he wanted to see his full team, which really has never gotten to play together, to get some time to play and then address what may need to be added.
Unfortunately though, this is never going to happen for the 2019-20 Pittsburgh Penguins. That was assured when Jake Guentzel crashed into the boards and wrecked his shoulder. That made official what probably was going to be the case when a skate cut Brian Dumoulin’s ankle in November — this team just is never going to get an extended look as a whole prior to the trade deadline.
Rutherford can’t wait on something that will never happen. Now that Sidney Crosby is back from missing 28 games, THIS is the time to seriously self-scout and determine what the team needs. The stats from last four games makes it glaringly obvious: the complimentary players around Crosby and Evgeni Malkin need a boost.
Fittingly, Bryan Rust is trucking along on his wonderful season, but then....It’s not a pretty picture.
Alex Galchenyuk was supposed to be a top-six winger option this season, maybe even penciled to score 20-25 goals, but it hasn’t come close to working out that way. He’s been unproductive and seen a shrinking role as the season has gone on. Even with Dominik Kahun on the shelf last night, Galchenyuk remained on the fourth line. It’s difficult to imagine coach Mike Sullivan not having his mind made up about this player.
And though it’s a very brief window into the season, this four game tiny sample does show the Pens weakness. Jared McCann is a streaky scorer that has gone cold and shuffled between Crosby and Malkin in recent games, without much success. Patric Hornqvist isn’t always going to produce either, especially at even strength. Neither McCann nor Hornqvist (with assists/60 at or under 1) have excelled passing the puck, which always hinders star centers who require the ability to move the puck from their wingers.
Dominik Simon doesn’t reliably generate enough points on a per game basis, a knock on him throughout his career. Kahun’s been a nice complimentary piece but hasn’t accomplished much lately.
In a bubble, all of these guys are fine, even as rotational top-six forwards to jump in and lend what they are good at to a Crosby or Malkin line. However, without high-end skill like Guentzel, the Pens get pretty thin, pretty quickly.
Without Guentzel, and with the Galchenyuk experiment already long over by the guy who gives out ice time, the Penguins don’t have enough skill and oomph on the wing. They have Rust and then not a lot else to work with.
That much by now should be coming into focus for Rutherford. His decision so far to be hands off and allow the team time has been rewarded by that group firing a bunch of wins into the standings. That has been a smart course to take to this point.
Rutherford probably knew since the moment of Guentzel’s diagnosis that he would have to take action to boost the winger group at some point. Given how the Pens’ supporting players outside of Rust have mostly played since Crosby has returned, that could be pushing to be sooner than later.
The question for Rutherford now ought to shift from what the Pens need and now to where they go to address it. The options for that can be discussed ad nauseam and are about only limited to the imagination of what should be added. Going into the break though, with a mini-sample of life with Crosby and without Guentzel should have crystallized Rutherford’s vision of what is needed, now it’s just a matter of answering the particulars like “when” will it happen and “who” will be coming over.