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State of the Union

by Sam Kasan @PensInsideScoop / Pittsburgh Penguins

Penguins general manager Jim Rutherford and head coach Mike Sullivan met with the media following the club's annual locker room cleanout day, or Getaway Day.

Rutherford opened his availability by congratulating the Washington Capitals on their series victory. Then the two men touched on several pressing matters regarding the state of the team. Here are the biggest takeaways…

Ch-ch-ch-changes

As with every off-season, there will be changes to the Pens' roster next season. What those changes will be aren't exactly clear.

"It's a little (too) early to tell," Rutherford said. "It's obvious that I'm going to keep an open mind to making some changes. I will make some changes. I can't give you a definite answer on who that's going to be right now and exactly the positions."

Forward Carter Rowney is the team's only unrestricted free agent, though they do have several restricted players with expiring contracts. That list includes forwards Riley Sheahan, Dominik Simon, Bryan Rust and Tom Kuhnhackl and defenseman Jamie Oleksiak.

But what's most important is that the core group of players remain as Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin, Kris Letang, Phil Kessel, Patric Hornqvist and Brian Dumoulin are all under contract for at least the next four years.

"We're a good team, and we will be a good team going forward," Rutherford said. "We'll have a chance to win again. We have the nucleus to do that."

What the Pens also have are a lot of valuable players that could be used as trade bait or leveraged if the team needed to make a deal work.

"We also have the pieces in place that are players that other teams are going to want that we're going to be able to make those changes," Rutherford said. "Sometimes you don't always have those players for cap reasons or for different reasons."

Although a scenario exists where Pittsburgh could return the entire team that finished the 2017-18 season, Rutherford will likely try to wheel and deal this summer to make his team better.

But expectations should be tempered. Any possible deal made may not be a blockbuster move.

Video: GM Jim Rutherford speaks with the media

"It's fair to say that this will be a different looking team by the time we open next season," he said. "It doesn't mean there will be drastic changes or a lot of changes, but there will be changes in the areas that will become necessary.

"If we can improve at defense or forward and the right deal comes along we'll do it."

Looking back

Only 36 hours have past since the Pens were eliminated from the playoffs by the Washington Capitals on Monday night. And while there may be a lot of second-guessing after the fact, the greatest critics of all were standing on the bench.

"There isn't a game that we play that I don't replay in my mind and say what we could have done different or how could we be better," Sullivan said. "I think that's just part of the process that coaches go through.

The Pens' coaches have a procedure to break down film from every game and make plans on how best to learn from the game and move forward.

"All I can tell you is as a coaching staff we sit before and after every game," Sullivan said, "we evaluate our circumstances, we weigh the different options at our disposal and we try to make the best decisions that we think can help the team win."

Sprong has sprung

One addition to the Pens lineup for next season will be prospect winger Daniel Sprong.

"He should be a regular on our team," Rutherford said.

Sprong enjoyed a rookie season for the ages with Wilkes-Barre/Scranton of the American Hockey League in 2017-18. He scored a club rookie record 32 goals, which tied for second overall in the AHL. His 65 points paced WBS while ranking fifth (tied) in the league.

Sprong, who was named to the AHL All-Rookie Team, appeared in eight games for Pittsburgh and recorded his first career two-goal, three-point game in January.

"We were very careful with him this year," Rutherford said. "We develop players in different ways. Certainly he had the ability to come in at certain times and play an offensive role on our team. But he needed to work on his all-around game. He did that."

Sprong's shot and offensive talent is obvious to anyone who observes him play. And once he masters the defensive responsibilities of his game, he'll make a huge impact in the NHL.

"He's a very talented player that will score a lot of goals in this league," Rutherford said.

Stages of grief

Despite the accomplishment of winning back-to-back championships, the Pens players still have a bitter taste from their Second Round playoff exit. And that feeling extends to the head coach.

"I'm still not over the Disappointed Stage," Sullivan said. "I had, have, so much belief in this group of players. When you fall short of your ultimate goal it stings. So I'm still not by that yet, at some point I hope. I'll continue to digest this."

Sullivan sees a championship team in that dressing room. And he's ready to get back to work and reclaim the title from whichever team raises the Cup in a month.

Video: Coach Sullivan speaks with the media

"I'm proud of this group and what they've been able to accomplish. It doesn't make it feel any better that we fell short this year," Sullivan said. "What it does do, for me anyway, is makes me that much hungrier to wanna do it again. I can't wait for Day 1 of training camp to get back at it with this group."

Rutherford's future

In a moment of levity, Rutherford was asked about his own future. After taking the job as general manager of the Pens in 2014 he stated that he could see himself in the role for "two or three years."

Four years and two Stanley Cups later the 69-year-old adjusted his stance. But that still hasn't stopped the media from asking at the end of every season about his fate.

"It's the annual question," Rutherford grinned.

And with his trademark smirk Rutherford brought the room to laughter by replying, "The best answer is that I may be around longer than you guys (in the media)."

Rutherford followed up by informing the media contingent that he made a similar remark to their brethren in Carolina when Rutherford was the GM of the Hurricanes.

"I did start telling some of those people and they are gone," Rutherford smiled. And forewarned: "You may want to check that before you ask me again."

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