As a follow up to this morning, a look into some areas that have majorly shaped the Penguins’ 2020-21 season. Now, we turn focus to an oft-analyzed subject, but one so important that it’s worthy of checking up on. The management decisions.
Jim Rutherford may have resigned in January, but there is no doubt that his shadow is still cast over this team based off of all his offseason roster decisions. For better or worse due to a flat salary cap era, the 2020-21 Penguins are probably 95% or more going to be the team that Rutherford put together.
It helps that the biggest Rutherford move of the offseason has to be judged as an unquestioned success halfway through this year. The decision to acquire Kasperi Kapanen was a controversial one for a few reasons. Was the price paid too high? (And perhaps it was, but there’s no point at re-litigating or going into the realm of hypotheticals about that aspect now). The other more pertinent question was Kapanen remotely worth it? He was coming off a fairly disappointing 2019-20 in Toronto. Did Rutherford pay a king’s ransom for a player who wouldn’t move the needle or fade into the lineup?
That is the key question at this moment, and has been resoundingly answered. Kapanen jumped into the season late after work visa issues but made an almost instant impact. Kapanen has 21 points (7G+14A) in 29 games. His speed has been an important weapon and helped the team become more dynamic. Although the NHL.com position designations aren’t always perfect, they look accurate enough to illustrate that Kapanen is currently 5th in scoring in the Eastern division this season among right wingers (behind Pavel Buchnevich, David Pastrnak, Bryan Rust and Jakub Voracek).
Another Rutherford decision was to add Cody Ceci as a free agent to much consternation, and he has been a wonderfully terrific and serviceable player. That’s been pointed out a lot recently, including here, so we won’t use too much more time on Ceci now besides pointing out that signing is deservedly going in the “win” column.
Ceci’s surprising contributions and Kapanen’s shining star though hasn’t detracted from some of the misses of Rutherford’s offseason revamp, to varying degrees of concern.
Depth signings of Juuso Riikola, Chad Ruhwedel, Sam Lafferty and Evan Rodrigues have been OK. I wouldn’t personally classify any as make or break given their roles and short-term commitments, just more rounding out the team with the necessary complimentary pieces. Some (Ruhwedel) have played better than others (Lafferty) in their opportunities, but none have had major impacts.
The Mark Jankowski experiment, however, is one to be a little more critical and look deeper into. It has busted. Unlike Rodrigues, Jankowski hasn’t been injured and has played enough to get a read on. According to expected goals% Jankowski has been the team’s worst regular player.
Jankowski has two goals, one in the first game and one into an empty net. Was it worth seeing if a former first round pick, still fairly young, could get back to his 2017-19 somewhat decent form? Sure, why not. But the question asked has been answered and the sooner the Pens upgrade there, the better. On a one year contract for league minimum, there is no issue moving forward, but the issue of relying on a replacement level player has become the bigger issue. Unlike some of the other depth signings, Jankowski has been used in a more key role as a center and a key forward piece of the penalty kill, which also brings more scrutiny.
The major trade of Mike Matheson for Patric Hornqvist hasn’t really had much pain for Pittsburgh. It also can’t be classified as a short-term win for the Pens either — which is a disappointment since that was what it aimed to accomplish.
Surely Rutherford thought the 34-year old power forward was soon to fade and not likely to able to play on a scoring line much longer. Well, Hornqvist has doing more than fine in that role in Florida with 25 points (12G+13A) in 31 games. Matheson has been OK and had his moments, good and bad. But for an offensive defenseman he’s got two goals and two assists in 24 games. He also has a bloated contract that will last five more seasons after this one, where the real headache appears to be forming.
If Kapanen and Jason Zucker were the lasting gifts that Rutherford left behind on this team, Matheson and his contract looks to be the spot that will eat up significant space for a really long time to come.
The interesting thing about Rutherford is all the shades of gray that remain from his decisions. His results are not as bad as some most vocal critics will holler, but not as flawless as those who are unable or unwilling to participate in an honest assessment either.
On one hand, he did accomplish his goal of making the team younger and faster on the ice. He was also working with financial constraints the shaped the offseason in a weird pandemic time, which merits a mention as well.
On the other hand, Rutherford made some gambles and resorted to rolling the dice on several key positions. Some of them have worked (notably Kapanen and Ceci), a handful of others have left the Pens in weakened spots in their lineup.
The injury situation that first ravaged the defense all at once and now has come for several key forwards has been an over-arching and impossible to ignore factor for the story of the team’s season so far as well. That certainly deserves a mention here at the close. For once though, that was set aside for these random thoughts to check in on the first line and how some of the offseason moves have been working out (or not) in the first half+ of this sprint of a season as the Pens position themselves to make another run to compete for a playoff spot...And then see what happens in the unpredictable chaos known as the NHL postseason.