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Mike Sullivan to return as Pens coach next season

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Assistants to possibly be changed up

Pittsburgh Penguins v Florida Panthers Photo by Eliot J. Schechter/NHLI via Getty Images

After a disappointing end to the season, Penguins general manager Jim Rutherford has promised changes will be coming to the team.

However according to reports at the Post-Gazette and Mark Madden, it won’t be involving changing the head coach this off-season.

Rutherford addressed the coaching performance in his press conference yesterday with praise and also dismay.

“We had a good regular season and dealt with some adversity and were able to get through that,” Rutherford said. “You have to look at that and give credit in the right places. I also have to review what’s happened here at the end of the last two seasons. There’s been a pattern in both seasons.”

That review may end up with some changes on staff to assistant coaches. One very obvious series turning point was the failure of the Pens’ power play, which was just 0-for-12 in the three games of the series that the Pens lost. Every game that Pittsburgh lost was a one goal game (disregarding an empty net goal against in Game 4).

Pittsburgh’s power play converting in key situational moments coulda/shoulda/woulda tipped the series to their advantage. Instead, it came up empty time and again. With the collection of talent the Pens have, from Sidney Crosby to Evgeni Malkin and Jake Guentzel and Kris Letang, Rutherford sounds a bit miffed that they weren’t able to get better results.

“Usually when you’re trying to fix the power play, you’re searching and you’re saying, we’ve got to go out and find a player or two. We’ve got enough guys on the power play that can be successful.”

Mark Recchi coaches the power play and the Pens’ forwards. Given the thought some staff changes might happen, and the above quote from the manager doesn’t believe the problem to be a player skill issue, does that open up the possibility for a change with Recchi? Seems like that could be a possibility to consider.

Rutherford also acknowledged the unavoidable in that the team’s effort and motivation and desperation in Game 4 fell way off the mark.

“We get to certain points in playoff series and we’re not the same team. We don’t have that same drive as we get closer to elimination. It was so disappointing in Game 4 to see where we were at.”

“You’re waiting for the desperation from the drop of the puck, and it didn’t come in the 1st period. It didn’t come in the 2nd period. It was even worse in the 3rd period. There’s something wrong if you don’t have that drive to win at that point in the series.”

But, apparently if the reports are right, that “something wrong” won’t result in changing the head coach at this time, which feels a bit counter-intuitive. What Rutherford acknowledges is a huge failure of the coach (whether it’s his fault or his players for not buying into his message) in that Sullivan couldn’t get the Pens to play with any desperation. They slogged through a game, scored zero goals and went home with a whimper.

It appears Rutherford won’t make than an indictment on Sullivan that will cost the coach his job at this point, but it still is a huge indictment of failure.

Instead, it looks like Rutherford will key into player changes in order to change the result from these two past really unsatisfactory post-seasons.

“This could be a year where we try to get younger, but in a way that we feel we can still win. Bringing some new, young energy in. We’re going to have to make some changes because of the cap.”

It will be interesting to see what that “new, young energy” will mean. Rutherford pinned the failures of the team’s third pair defensemen — who were on ice for half of the goals Montreal scored — mostly on wanting more from impending free agent Justin Schultz. That’s not untrue, and also smart business, the manager can’t run down the other player who still has three years left on his deal. Rutherford attempted to trade that player (Jack Johnson) last summer. He really should try harder this off-season, as Johnson is the oldest non-core member and been a terrible on-ice player. If the team wants to get younger and better, that’s an easy place to start.

The Patric Hornqvist conundrum will be interesting too. He’s expensive with a $5.3 million cap hit, and isn’t playing in the top-six any longer at age 33. Hornqvist also has a full no trade clause until the end of the 2020-21 season, per CapFriendly. Do the Pens try to move on from Hornqvist one year too soon instead of one year too late? That would make them younger and a quicker team, if they could navigate Hornqvist’s NTC.

Beyond that, Rutherford has little else to do if he isn’t going to change the coach. He committed to the star players — which is probably smart since reportedly owner Mario Lemieux wasn’t going to allow him to trade a foundational piece anyways last summer and wants Crosby and Malkin to retire as Penguins.

The challenge of the off-season might be shaping up for Rutherford as to how to fix the end result of the past two seasons if he’s unwilling or uninterested in pinning blame on Sullivan for the results the Pens have shown in recent years. Without a change of the coach and without moving any real core players, it feels like minor window-dressing is all Rutherford will be able to accomplish in a tight cap window, especially if he can’t or isn’t able to move veterans like Johnson and Hornqvist.

Changing a few peripheral players and shuffling an assistant coach or two might be the course Rutherford has committed towards based on his comments. He has some time and might want to re-consider that, because such minor issues are unlikely to re-open a closing window as Crosby and Malkin age.