PITTSBURGH -- Over the course of two years, Pittsburgh Penguins general manager Jim Rutherford slowly built the team he originally envisioned.
Before hiring Rutherford on June 6, 2014, the Penguins experienced five consecutive disappointing Stanley Cup Playoff runs since winning the Cup in 2009. That didn't change immediately, and Pittsburgh lost to the New York Rangers in five games in the Eastern Conference First Round in 2015.
The Penguins are now in the Eastern Conference Final against the Tampa Bay Lighting, with Game 1 at Consol Energy Center on Friday (8 p.m. ET; NBCSN, CBC, TVA Sports), but Pittsburgh's fortunes didn't reverse at the beginning of this season either.
"There was something about this team, especially when you look at the start of the season, that wasn't right," Rutherford said.
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The Penguins struggled in the first two months, winning 15 of 28 games through Dec. 11, when Pittsburgh lost 3-2 in a shootout to the Los Angeles Kings. Coach Mike Johnston was fired the following day and replaced with Wilkes-Barre/Scranton coach Mike Sullivan.
Sullivan lost his first four games, but his philosophy slowly took shape. The Penguins began shooting more and became noticeably quicker.
That approach eventually led to wins, which led to Pittsburgh finishing second in the Metropolitan Division behind the Washington Capitals.
"When Mike Sullivan came in, there was an immediate connection between the players and coach," Rutherford said. "It was only a matter of time."
Rutherford said jokingly that Sullivan's ability to win is his most likable quality, but added that Sullivan's personality has gripped Pittsburgh's locker room.
"I'm just trying to be myself and to approach this job the best way I know how," Sullivan said. "I'm a straight-forward guy. I've tried to be straight-forward with this group."
Pittsburgh's patience was rewarded. Rutherford added one of the NHL's premier scorers, Phil Kessel; a speedy left wing, Carl Hagelin; an efficient offensive defenseman, Trevor Daley; and a veteran leader, fourth-line center Matt Cullen.
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"I had talked to [the Chicago Blackhawks] some time ago about Trevor, he was adjusting to [them]," Rutherford said. "It's hard when a team wins a Stanley Cup and a new player comes in the next year. … Everybody's still talking about last year, so I can understand why it was hard for Trevor there."
"In Hagelin's case, we were judging him based on what he did with the Rangers and he was having a tough time adjusting [with the Anaheim Ducks]. … We changed the outlook of our team dramatically."
Center Nick Bonino, who Rutherford acquired in a trade with the Vancouver Canucks on July 28, has played well enough between Hagelin and Kessel to force a debate if he or Evgeni Malkin is Pittsburgh's second-line center.
After a slow start, Kessel has become Pittsburgh's most potent playoff performer with five goals and a Penguins-high 12 points in 11 games. Rutherford said he felt it took Kessel a few months to adapt, but he has become the player they expected.
"I think we have a good group here and it makes it pretty easy here," Kessel said. "We're winning games. We just have to keep on that track."
Rutherford's influence was first felt on June 28, 2014, when he traded forward James Neal to the Nashville Predators for forwards Patric Hornqvist and Nick Spaling. Spaling was part of Pittsburgh's trade for Kessel on July 1, and Hornqvist has developed into Sidney Crosby's reliable right wing.
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With that turnover, which includes a few ascending players from Wilkes-Barre/Scranton, the Penguins became smaller but faster.
"This is the kind of team that I'm comfortable with, where you have balance throughout the lineup," Rutherford said. "The balance is really showing here in the playoffs with all the lines contributing."
Rutherford said he noticed the Penguins seemed slow and old early this season, which led to him trading for Hagelin, Daley and defenseman Justin Schultz. Skill wasn't enough.
"The biggest thing for me was, in last year's offseason, we were adding players, we really focused on a lot on adding character and leadership," Rutherford said. "[Crosby] is a terrific leader, but the more leadership you can put into that group, the better you're going to be to deal with difficult situations."
Crosby and Malkin combined for four points and one goal in the Eastern Conference Second Round against the Capitals, but the Penguins won the best-of-7 series 4-2. Rutherford has constructed a team that can survive without its top two players constantly carrying the load.
"I don't care if [rookie goalie] Matt Murray scores the goals," Rutherford said. "As long as we get one more than the other team."