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Rutherford sees Penguins headed in right direction

by Wes Crosby / NHL.com

PITTSBURGH -- Pittsburgh Penguins general manager Jim Rutherford said he doesn't expect sweeping organizational changes this offseason.

Rutherford said Tuesday he was never concerned with his job status following his first season in Pittsburgh. After replacing Ray Shero in June, Rutherford said he planned on remaining the general manager for a few seasons while younger candidates were groomed.

He now does not have a definite timeline for his stay in Pittsburgh.

"We went through periods of time that were difficult. But it's part of my job," Rutherford said. "But overall, I haven't been here a full year yet and I do have a better lay of the land as to how things work here now. I have a much better handle on the team. How long do I plan on staying here? I don't know.

"But I certainly plan on staying here as we speak, and going into next season."

Coach Mike Johnston's job also seems to be safe. Rutherford was complimentary of his first-year performance amid adversity.

Pittsburgh got off to a 22-6-5 start, leading the Metropolitan Division by three points over the New York Islanders on Dec. 23. The Penguins struggled through the second half of the season, clinching a Stanley Cup Playoff berth with a 2-0 win against the Buffalo Sabres on the final day, but Rutherford said he does not think that was indicative of Johnston's performance.

"I think Mike did a really good job," Rutherford said. "He had really good communication with the players. And based on my meeting with the players [Monday], I had that confirmed. I like to have exit meetings with the players separate from the coach, so if they want to say something, they're comfortable saying it. And I feel very comfortable that we were going in the right direction.

"Mike's getting used to these players and how they work. And he's dealing with superstar players and things like that. But overall, he made adjustments when necessary. He dealt with tough situations at times … I think, overall, Mike and the staff did a pretty good job."

At the 2015 NHL Trade Deadline, Rutherford believed the Penguins were a Stanley Cup contender and felt the acquisitions of defensemen Ben Lovejoy and Ian Cole helped in the short term. Injuries to defensemen Kris Letang and Christian Ehrhoff led to increased minutes and proved detrimental to the blue line, Rutherford said.

Pittsburgh dealt with several significant injuries throughout the season. Forward Evgeni Malkin played on a sprained ankle and forward Patric Hornqvist had a broken rib during the playoffs, Rutherford said.

But he admitted some problems were not injury-related. He would have liked the Penguins power play, which fell off drastically after converting at better than 40 percent to start the season, to shoot the puck more.

Pittsburgh's top power-play unit includes, when healthy, Sidney Crosby, Chris Kunitz, Malkin, Hornqvist and Letang. Rutherford said there is only so much coaching a staff can do until it is on the players to execute the message.

"I think both the coaching staff and the players have to take some of that responsibility," Rutherford said. "I mean, it's like all of us, we don't get 100 percent of the things right. But overall, I'm saying Mike did a good job. But yeah, some of that responsibility falls back on the coaches and the players.

"You can only tell them so many times, and show them so many times, how other power plays are working until the players need to do that. We have two of the best players in the game, and I believe our defenseman in Letang should be in the voting for the Norris. … So we have the players who can do it."

Because of the talent on their power play, Rutherford said he thinks the Penguins' attempt to make a perfect play too often. He said he believes they should put more pucks toward the net in order to create more rebounds and scoring chances.

Rutherford said he was not pleased with Pittsburgh's lack of discipline, but thought the coaching staff did all it could to diffuse that tendency.

"There was a long period of time, and I think we got better at this in the last month when Mike clamped down on the discipline, but this team wasn't a real disciplined team at times," Rutherford said. "Whether it was taking penalties at the wrong time, or too many penalties in a game, or talking back to the officials, and things like that. I think when Mike really clamped down on it with about a month left in the season, our players responded to it. They were much more disciplined.

"That's something we have to be much, much better at next season."

A glaring issue that affected Pittsburgh late in the season and into its Eastern Conference First Round Series against the New York Rangers was the lack of support Crosby and Malkin were given from their wings. Hornqvist played well, scoring two goals and three points in five playoff games, and Kunitz had an impressive Game 2, but they were the exceptions.

Rutherford said a primary goal is to acquire at least one top-six wing during the offseason.

"I do believe we have to continue to look for these players," Rutherford said. "Hornqvist is one. Whether it's with [Crosby] or [Malkin], he's a guy who can help those players. But to try to get a little more skill, and maybe get one or two more wingers that are more complementary of those players, is something that's been a goal of this franchise for a while. And continues to be.

"We will start looking and see what's out there, trade-wise. I think it's going to be more apt to be in a trade than it will be in free agency. But I'm well aware that's something we have to continue to look for, and that's what we'll do."

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