When Jim Rutherford talks it is wise to listen to what he says, because he is typically not going to B.S. you.
If he says he is going to do something, he is probably going to do it.
If he says he is not going to do something, he is probably not going to do it.
He is going to speak his mind, and he is going to be honest with his opinion of the team and roster.
So when he talked earlier this week about things needing to change after back-to-back postseason disappointments, you can be pretty damn sure there is going to be change this offseason.
That change already started on Wednesday when the Penguins announced that assistant coaches Mark Recchi, Jacques Martin, and Sergei Gonchar will not have their contracts renewed. While head coach Mike Sullivan will be back, it is never a good sign for the head coach when all three of his top assistants are let to at the same time. Especially after his team has won just one of its past 10 playoff games.
The NHL is an unforgiving league for coaches — even good ones and great ones — and the shelf life for them can be ridiculously short. It does not matter what your track record is, what your resume consists of, or how many games and championships you have won, it is still a “what have you done lately” business and all 31 coaches are seemingly a half bad season away from being replaced. It would not be unfair to suggest that Sullivan is very much on the hot seat going into the 2020-21 season.
You can also be sure that new assistant coaches will not be the only changes the Penguins experience this offseason.
Changes to the roster will be coming as well.
The question is how much change, and how much change is actually needed.
It is a good bet that the three UFA’s will not be retained. Justin Schultz was specifically called out by name by Rutherford for having more to give, while Patrick Marleau and Conor Sheary just did not seem to fit after the trade deadline or in the playoffs. There is little need to bring them back.
It is also a fair assumption to think that an RFA or two will not be back. Did Jared McCann play his way out of Pittsburgh in the playoffs? Has Matt Murray played his final game with the Penguins? Evan Rodrigues and Juuso Rikkola also do not seem to be in the plans.
Suddenly, with the departures of the UFA’s and maybe a trade (or non-qualifying) of an RFA or two and you have a pretty significant chunk of the roster getting turned over.
Is that enough change to fix whatever it is that has ailed the Penguins the past two postseasons?
Honestly, I think it can be if you bring in the right players to replace them.
Any time a team loses the way the Penguins have the past two postseasons (a four-game sweep, and a qualifying round loss to the 24th ranked team in the NHL during the regular season) there is going to be a desire to make a seismic change to the roster and dump a core player. That is especially true when when those core players are the ages that Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin, and Kris Letang currently are. This line of thinking is almost always an overreaction. Even if you conclude that they did not play their best in either of the past two postseasons (and they clearly did not), I am still not sure what making that sort of change does to improve your chances.
Their resumes are what they are. Two of them (Crosby and Malkin) are first ballot Hall of Famers and NHL legends, and the other (Letang) is one of the two best players in franchise history at his position. They each have their name on the Stanley Cup three times in 10 years and are the reason the team is in the playoffs every year with a chance to compete for championships.
Yes, they are getting older. Yes, they are going to start slowing down with each passing year. But even with that they are still elite players and it is going to be almost impossible to bring equal value back in return that is going to make the team better. Having them around is why the “window” (and I have grown to hate the term in the NHL, by the way) remains open. Getting rid of one of them right now probably only accelerates the rate at which it closes. Nobody wants to see that happen.
I know it is not an apples to apples comparison because of the ages of the core now versus then, but it was only a few years ago that the Penguins were coming off a string of disappointing — and ugly — playoff exits where there was talk that the team needed to shake things up within the core. That maybe the window had closed on them as Stanley Cup contenders. Instead of changing the core, they overhauled the complementary cast around that core and ended up bringing two more championships to the city.
Now, maybe that is easier to do when Crosby, Malkin, and Letang are still 28 and 29 years old instead of 33 and 34 years old, but again, they can still be top-line players even at their current ages and with the right cast around them can still be contenders.
Think about what the two biggest Achilles Heels were for this team. It was the third line and the third defense pair. You can not deny that. You can not sugarcoat it. You can not hide from it.
Those past two championship teams both had dominant third lines. The type of third line that could pick up the slack offensively when the top players went quiet for a few games and still give them a chance to win. And all of that DID happen.
We look at a top lie player like Malkin going four games against Montreal without a goal and immediately point the finger at him for not doing enough. But our biggest failing as hockey fans — and hockey media — is how we still do not accept the streakiness of the best players in the world.
Take the 2015-16 playoffs for example. Malkin had two different stretches of at least six consecutive games (including an eight-game stretch) where he did not score a goal.
Crosby had two different stretches of at least SEVEN games during that same postseason where he did not score a goal, including the last seven games of the playoffs and the entire Stanley Cup Final series against San Jose.
None of those stretches from their top two players hindered the Penguins’ chances of winning because they had a third (and occasionally fourth) line that could score in any game. That helped the Penguins win games when the stars were quiet, which then gave the stars more games and more opportunities to eventually break through. Which they always eventually did, and in a big way. That is how you win in the playoffs. It is not from your stars dominating from start to finish. It is having a balanced team that has enough firepower on the lower lines to keep the team competitive when the top players are not scoring. This year in the playoffs the Penguins got nothing — less than nothing, actually — from their third line.
That meant when either of the top lines went quiet, there was no offense coming from anybody. That is not a recipe for success.
It is a similar story on defense. No, Jack Johnson and Justin Schultz are not the only reason the Penguins failed in the playoffs the past two seasons. But together they still formed a defense pairing that should have been unplayable. They were absolutely torched every time they were on the ice and every piece of objective and subjective information backed that up. Those 2015-16 and 2016-17 seasons may not have been loaded on defense, but they also did not have any glaring weaknesses. They did not have a pairing that you hated to see on the ice.
Those depth spots may not seem like key ingredients for a championship team, but they absolutely are. Your best players can only play so many minutes, and even if they dominate in those minutes you still need players that can keep your team above water for the other 30-40 minutes of the game. If you do not have that, nothing else really matters. The Penguins did not have that in the playoffs because you knew every single time the third line or third defense pairing was on the ice the team was going to be losing the matchup. That is tough to overcome.
Fix those spots, and maybe make a tweak or two elsewhere, and this core (which should also include Jake Guentzel, Jason Zucker, and John Marino) is still good enough to win.
When they had the right support players around them, they were champions. When they did not, they tended to fizzle out in the playoffs. Fix the support players and see if this core can take another run at a championship. Am willing to bet they can.