Pens general manager Jim Rutherford held his season-ending media conference at CONSOL Energy Center. Here are some of the highlights of his comments.
Rutherford opened his media conference by expressing his disappointment at the Pens’ first-round exit in the playoffs to the New York Rangers.
“We fell short of our goal,” Rutherford said. “We fell short of our expectations. That’s very disappointing for us all. Now we have to move forward.”
However, Rutherford was proud of the way his injury-depleted team competed against the NHL’s Presidents’ Trophy-winning team.
“I like what our players did in the playoffs,” he said. “I know it was only five games. But we competed hard and gave the Rangers everything they could handle. We can talk about injuries, I’m not trying to make excuses, we can talk about breaks in games, you make your own breaks. But we could have easily got some breaks and those games against the Rangers could have easily gone the other way.”
Though Rutherford did not make any excuses, he did acknowledge that the injuries to Kris Letang (concussion), Christian Ehrhoff (concussion) and Olli Maatta (shoulder surgery) really affected the Pens’ ability to break out of their own zone and create offense. The losses of Letang and Ehrhoff were particularly difficult to deal with as they occurred late in the season.
“Those were huge losses for our team that we couldn’t overcome down the stretch,” he said. “(Letang and Ehrhoff) were puck-movers. We missed that on the backend. It affected our goals for because our transition game was affected and that affects the forwards when they’re not getting the puck when they should.”
The Pens were also missing forward Pascal Dupuis (blood clot). Rutherford revealed that center Evgeni Malkin and winger Patric Hornqvist were also dealing with injuries during the end of the regular season and in the postseason.
“’Geno’ is the type of guy that won’t use excuses, but he sprained his ankle,” Rutherford said. “He came back sooner than most players would and continued to play on an ankle that was not 100 percent. Hornqvist had a broken rib. He came back and played with it.”
Rutherford gave the Pens coaching staff – head coach Mike Johnston, assistant coaches Rick Tocchet and Gary Agnew and goaltender coach Mike Bales – high marks for their work this season.
“(Johnston) made adjustments when necessary. He dealt with tough situations at times,” Rutherford said. “I think Mike did a really good job. He had really good communication with the players. Based on my meeting with the players yesterday, I had that confirmed.”
Rutherford pointed to Marc-Andre Fleury’s career year, in which he was the NHL leader with 10 shutouts. Rutherford credited not only Bales’ guidance and Fleury’s work, but also the team’s new defensive structure.
“Part of it can be attributed to Mike (Johnston) because I don’t believe we gave up as many quality scoring chances this year,” Rutherford said. “We tightened that up. Even Fleury talked about it in my meeting (with him). He liked how we tightened things up. We reduced our goals against. Our penalty killing was good.”
At the NHL trade deadline, Rutherford felt the Pens were really close to having a championship-caliber team. The only spot he wanted to upgrade was the experience level on defense.
Rutherford made deals to acquire Ian Cole from St. Louis and Ben Lovejoy from Anaheim in exchange for Robert Bortuzzo and Simon Despres respectively. The duo joined the team during their West Coast trip and really meshed well.
“We came back off that trip I thought our team was really in good shape and as good as any other team in the league, and that we really had a strong chance to compete and play into June,” Rutherford said.
That was when the team lost Ehrhoff and then Letang for the season, which changed the Pens’ makeup drastically.
“I believe that those (deadline) deals helped us on the short-term,” Rutherford said. “It didn’t turn out exactly how we planned because both of those guys were supposed to fit into certain slots, playing a certain number of minutes, but that would have been if Ehrhoff and Letang were playing. Then we had to lean on them to play a lot more minutes.”
Rutherford did admit that the team debated the trades internally, and that acquiring Lovejoy for Despres was a move that was very difficult.
“The one move that I question and that we questioned at the time was trading a young defenseman for a veteran defensemen,” he said. “The reason we did that was we wanted a right-shot defenseman and veteran at the time to take a long run. The other part of it, we have a lot of young defensemen. We can only put so many in the lineup.”
AREAS TO IMPROVE
Rutherford was disappointed with the ending to the season. But he was pleased with a lot of the things the Pens did this season, though he did point to several areas that he would like to see improved upon next season.
One of those areas is the team’s discipline.
“We got better at this when Mike clamped down on the discipline,” he said. “This team wasn’t a real disciplined team at times, whether it was taking penalties at the wrong time or too many penalties in a game or talking back to the officials. 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 better at next year.”
Another place for improvement is the team’s power play. The team started the season clicking at nearly 40 percent, but that pace slowed to 19.3 percent by season’s end.
“I don’t believe that our power play shoots the puck enough,” Rutherford said. “Too often we try to make the perfect play. Early in the year when we were clicking along at a much higher pace than we knew we were going to, we shot the puck a lot. We worked off of rebounds and breaking up the box.”
Rutherford pointed to the team’s immense talent, which can be a blessing and a curse.
“They’re so talented that they’re trying to make those perfect goals and perfect plays,” said Rutherford, who put responsibility on both the players and coaches. “The players are aware of what changes need to be made on the power play. As the season went along, I agree, our power play was disappointing and underperformed. It can be fixed because we have the players that are capable of doing it.”
Rutherford and his operations staff will hold meetings over the next month to assess the team’s current state and the best plans to move forward. One facet of the team they’d like to improve is its speed.
“We’d like to get more speed in our lineup,” he said. “We would like to get some of these younger players started. Some of that young energy will help.”
And as always, the Pens are searching for talented wingers to help superstar centers Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin. Though acquiring those players will likely come via a trade.
“It’s not a great free agency crop,” Rutherford said. “Hornqvist is one. He’s a guy that can help those players. To try and get a little more skill, maybe one or two more wingers that are more complimentary, is something that’s been a goal of this franchise for a while, and continues to be. We’ll see what’s out there trade-wise.”
The Pens expect to fill the openings on defense with their plethora of young, talented blueliners in the system. Prospects like Derrick Pouliot and Brian Dumoulin took huge strides in their development this year at the NHL level.
“They’ve come of age and their development has come along nicely,” Rutherford said. “At some point we have to put these defensemen in or their development will go the other way. We have very good young defensemen that have shown signs that they’re ready to play.”
*When he was hired, Rutherford said he saw himself holding the GM position for 2-3 years. However, he was asked to reassess his position.
“I now plan on staying for about 12 years,” he joked.
“I haven’t been here a full year yet,” Rutherford continued. “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. I certainly plan on staying here as we speak and going into next season.”
*Rutherford pointed out how much captain Sidney Crosby grew as a two-way forward for the Pens over the course of the season.
“I’m so proud of what he did in becoming that all-around player, coming back in his own end deep, helping out, and getting his points,” Rutherford said. “If he hadn’t had the mumps and gone through that three-week period he still would have won the scoring race. And played an all-around game. That’s the kind of game and leadership you need to ultimately win a championship. That was a big step forward.”
*Rutherford took blame for Beau Bennett’s lack of development, by not sending him to Wilkes-Barre/Scranton before he was waiver eligible to play in more games.
“We made a mistake on Beau Bennett as far as development-wise,” he said. “I’ll take the responsibility for that. When it was getting closer for him to become a waivered player, I felt we should have sent him to Wilkes-Barre and let him play a lot. He’s a guy that hasn’t played enough over the years. So we kept him around that time. He’s not consistent enough, he’s not strong enough, but he’s a very talented player.”
Rutherford still believes that Bennett will “be a good NHL player.” He added, “I hope it starts next year and not the year after, but at some point in time he’s going to get it.”
*Despite the Pens’ early playoff exit, Rutherford said he never felt his job was in trouble.
“I have had 100-percent support from ownership from the day I got here even to 20 minutes after our final game.”