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Penguins need changes to remain Cup competitors, GM says

Rutherford questions desire, chemistry after first-round sweep by Islanders

by Wes Crosby / NHL.com Correspondent

CRANBERRY, Pa. -- The Pittsburgh Penguins must make changes for next season to be able to compete for the Stanley Cup.

General manager Jim Rutherford said as much Thursday, two days after the Penguins lost 3-1 to the New York Islanders in Game 4 of the Eastern Conference First Round. Pittsburgh lost the best-of-7 series 4-0, the first time the Penguins have been swept since the 2013 Eastern Conference Final against the Boston Bruins.

 

[RELATED: Complete Islanders vs. Penguins series coverage]

 

Two years removed from winning the Cup for a second straight season, Rutherford questioned if success affected the Penguins' desire.

"I wonder if it's because there's too many guys content with where they are in their careers now after winning a couple Stanley Cups," Rutherford said. "Is that a signal where some of that has to be changed, where you've got that eagerness again?"

Rutherford also detailed another area where this group lacked.

"In [2016 and 2017], we were a team. We were a very tight-knit team," Rutherford said. "I didn't see that this year almost from Day One. I didn't see a point where guys came together as a team."

For the second straight year, Rutherford said he plans to make a few changes entering the offseason. He said he doesn't have a definitive plan yet but, "It won't be the exact same team."

For the Penguins to win another Stanley Cup in the near future, Rutherford said change is necessary. The opportunity to win won't be there with how they're currently built, he said.

Video: Islanders advance with sweep of Penguins

"I don't think as is, but the window is still open," Rutherford said. "I think it should be open for more than just one year also. I'll say the obvious based on how things finished, we're not going to do it the way we finished."

The Penguins won't have many free agents this offseason. The most high-profile player is 42-year-old Matt Cullen, a fourth-line center who could retire after playing his 21st NHL season.

Rutherford said that won't make his job more difficult, implying he would be willing to trade at least one player who was vital during the championship runs.

"We have a lot of good players, and good players that have good resumes," Rutherford said. "Players that have won Stanley Cups. Players that have contributed big to that. So depending on what changes we plan to make, we have valuable assets to make some of those changes."

Sidney Crosby, Phil Kessel, Patric Hornqvist and Kris Letang each said changes are inevitable. But all said they don't think an overhaul is necessary because they haven't lost faith in the core.

"It's always easy to point fingers and look at reasons why you lost," Crosby, the Penguins captain, said. "That's kind of the nature when you lose, but it's a pretty fine line. That's what I've learned over the years and you know, even in this series we just played. It's pretty small, the difference between winning and losing. You've got to find a way to overcome that and be on the winning side of it, but I definitely have confidence in the group of guys we have."

Video: Penguins doomed by offensive struggles vs. Islanders

Letang said the Penguins are as motivated as they were in the championship years.

"Not a doubt about it," the defenseman said. "We have guys that are still hungry for more. When you have a guy like Sid that wants to lead a team to more championships, you have a chance every year."

The Penguins were built on speed in 2016 and 2017. Since winning those championships, they've added more physical players, particularly at defenseman.

Jack Johnson signed a five-year contact with an average annual value of $3.25 million on July 1. The Penguins acquired Erik Gudbranson in a trade with the Vancouver Canucks on Feb. 25.

With Johnson and Gudbranson, Rutherford said he thinks Pittsburgh's defensemen could be their best since he was hired June 6, 2014.

The Penguins haven't gone away from their speed game, Rutherford said. Their lack of playoff success the past two seasons has more to do with inconsistency and getting away from a more structured style designed to limit mistakes.

"There's a certain discipline and a certain diligence associated with winning at this time of year," coach Mike Sullivan said. "As a group, we all have to take responsibility because we didn't live up to that. ... We had back pressure on the puck [in 2016 and 2017]. We had sticks. We defended hard. We limited opportunities at the net. There were all kinds of aspects of our game that made us a team that's difficult to play against."

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