The Pittsburgh Penguins’ 2015-16 season is rapidly circling the drain. They’ve already fired one head coach (correctly) and their second one has started his Penguins’ coaching career 2-5-1 and looked listless at times. It’s not hard to imagine that GM Jim Rutherford is next on the chopping block, whether that is in season or after the season (probably after the season, most likely). A subsequent post will examine what the Pens can realistically expect to do moving forward, but before you move forward, you need to look back at how you got there.
This is the anatomy of how the Penguins went from the toast of the NHL to a team that is a joyless, nightly exercise to watch. Think of this as the reading of rites before we try to resuscitate the patient one more time with the electric paddles.
GM Ray Shero Tried To Keep The Band Together For One More Run
It’s become quite fashionable around these here parts to blame ex-GM Ray Shero. He’s been saddled with everything that’s wrong with the Penguins and some things not associated with the Penguins, up to and including the Lindbergh baby kidnapping, the assassination of JFK, and faking the moon landing. There were some oddities that he had, especially his fetish with drafting and obtaining defensemen, but the end result is this — he helped create two rosters that went to back-to-back Stanley Cup Finals and they raised the Cup in one of them. Yes, he came into the job with Crosby, Malkin, and Fleury, but as we’ve seen this year, you need to properly fill out a roster with all four lines and three d-pairings.
The place where the franchise jumped the shark was after getting humiliated by the Boston Bruins in the 2012-13 playoffs. Ray Shero did his part and acquired a slew of quality veterans that every Cup contender seeks out come playoff time, including future Hall of Famer Jarome Iginla. The problem was that Iginla will be going into the HOF as a RW and then-coach Dan Bylsma insisted on playing him as a LW. Add to that the fact that Bylsma was thoroughly outcoached by Claude Julien in the 4-0 series sweep and it should have resulted in Bylsma being fired immediately after the season.
But Shero wanted one more grab at the silver and rationalized that it could all be fixed. So not only did he extend Bylsma for 2 more years in the summer, he compounded the issue by extending Pascal Dupuis and Chris Kunitz as well, each to four year deals. It’s easy to say that’s 20/20 hindsight, but signing 34-year old Dupuis (no matter how good of shape he kept himself in) to a 4 yr/$15M deal and a 33-year old Kunitz to a 3 yr/$11.5M deal is just not smart business sense. I could see 2 years each, maybe, but there is no way that Shero thought that a 36-37 Dupuis/Kunitz player would be a quality contract.
The kicker, however, was signing Rob Scuderi (then 34) to a 4 yr/$13.5M free agent deal. Really? Was the market frothing over the chance to sign a defensive defenseman with not a ton of size? It’s like Shero took the deal he had on the table when Scuderi left to go to the Kings in the summer of 2009 and scratched out the date to say 2013. He was going to use that offer no matter what!
Not acknowledging that the team needed to get faster and get a new coach was the first critical mistake.
Hiring GM Jim Rutherford, A Timex Watch In A Digital World
After Shero was clipped following the 2014 playoffs, Jim Rutherford was hired as the new GM. This is not 20/20 hindsight at all — no one was excited by this hire. No one. Rutherford had muddled his way through the last five years of his tenure with the Carolina Hurricanes and looked as if the game had passed him by. Pens fans liked him more for the 2012 Jordan Stall trade as Canes’ GM that brought Brandon Sutter, Brian Doumoulin and the draft pick that became Derrick Pouliot than what he could potentially do for the Pittsburgh Penguins.
It was pitched that Rutherford was going to basically mentor a GM-in-waiting candidate in the form of Jason Botterill, but I would have rather seen Botterill get the job outright with Rutherford or some other old salt given the nominal title of adviser or consultant.
The Continued Squandering of Young Talent and Picks
One of the things that Shero-haters like to mention, besides the defensemen fetish, is his trading of draft picks for veterans at the trade deadline. Well, in case no one hasn’t noticed, that practice has been alive and well under Jim Rutherford. But when Shero was doing it, the Penguins were at a much different place in their win cycle than now with Rutherford. It’s one thing to get guys in 2013 when the Penguins were (on paper) the best team in the Eastern Conference. Now it’s just trying to keep up with the Joneses.
Here’s a look at the draft picks and young players given up by Rutherford in his two years at the helm:
- January 2015 — gave up 2015 1st round pick for David Perron
- February 2015 — gave up 2015 4th round pick, 2016 2nd round pick for Daniel Winnik
- March 2015 — gave up 2016 7th round pick (and marginal d-man Robert Bortuzzo) for Ian Cole
- March 2015 — gave up Simon Despres for Ben Lovejoy
- July 2015 — gave up 2016 conditional 1st round pick, 2016 3rd round pick, Kaspari Kapanen in Phil Kessel trade (they did get back a 2016 conditional 2nd round pick)
- July 2015 — gave up 2016 conditional 3rd round pick (and Brandon Sutter) for Nick Bonino, Adam Clendening, and got back 2016 2nd round pick to make up for pick lost in Winnik trade
The Ian Cole trade is the only slam-dunk great trade of these six listed above. The rest (yes, even the trade for cult-hero, hot dog-loving Phil Kessel) are either terrible right now or still to be determined.
To crossover to baseball for a moment, the Pittsburgh Penguins in 2015-16 remind me a lot of the Detroit Tigers of present. The Tigers were an excellent team and a World Series contender a few years back, but came up short. Since then injuries and decline in performance by key players, coupled with a bloated payroll, have relegated them to just being considered a potential playoff contender. The Tigers’ payroll outlook does not look kind to them. The Penguins are in the same boat — no longer a short list candidate for the Cup, hanging around the margins, with a payroll under a cap system that does not afford much wiggle room.
But how to fix it? I’ll save that answer for next year…which is also next week.