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The Evolution of the Pens

by Sam Kasan / Pittsburgh Penguins

The Pens pulled off an upset when they topped the President’s Trophy-winning Washington Capitals in six games in a Second Round showdown that propelled them to their fourth Eastern Conference Final in the past nine years.

In the critical series-clinching Game 6 against Washington, the Pens executed a 4-3 overtime victory. And all four goals scorers – Phil Kessel (twice), Carl Hagelin and Nick Bonino – were not members of the team a year ago. Neither was the team’s starting goalie Matt Murray.

For that matter, half of the team wasn’t with the Pens as the start of the season, including the head coach.

Mike Sullivan and role players Matt Cullen, Eric Fehr, Tom Kuhnhackl, Bryan Rust, Trevor Daley, Derrick Pouliot and Justin Schultz have all contributed to the teams success, and each was a piece in a year-long overhaul of the team by the general manager.

And finally, after two years on the job, the team looks like the one Jim Rutherford envisioned when he took over the Pens two summers ago.

“This is the kind of team that I'm comfortable with,” Rutherford told the media at a press conference on Thursday afternoon. “We have balance throughout the lineup and depth. The balance is really showing here in the playoffs where all the lines have contributed. All of our eight defensemen have played at different times during the playoffs.”

Rutherford arrived in Pittsburgh in the summer of 2014 after spending 20 years with the Carolina Hurricanes organization.

During his two years as general manager, Rutherford has completely retooled the makeup of the team. In fact, only eight players remain from the team’s roster from 2013-14 – Beau Bennett, Sidney Crosby, Pascal Dupuis, Chris Kunitz, Evgeni Malkin, Kris Letang, Olli Maatta and Marc-Andre Fleury.

Of that group, only Crosby, Kunitz, Malkin, Letang and Maatta have played in the current playoff run.

Rutherford made an immediate splash when he took the job by trading 40-goal scorer James Neal to the Nashville Predators in exchange for wingers Patric Hornqvist and Nick Spaling.

Hornqvist added an element of feistiness and wreckless abandon that was lacking from the Pens’ lineup. The team enjoyed a hot start to the 2014-15 season, but suffered a huge blow with the losses of Letang (concussion) and Maatta (tumor, shoulder surgery) for most of the regular season and entire playoffs.

The team struggled down the stretch and didn’t clinch a playoff berth until the final game of the regular season – a 2-0 win at Buffalo.

“We had 92 points with about 10 games left and we were tracking pretty good,” Rutherford said. “Then Letang got hurt and that one on top of Maatta being out most of the year, and then it was difficult for us from that point on.”
The Pens were felled by the New York Rangers in five games in the First Round.

After the early exit in the postseason, Rutherford went back to work on improving his team.

Rutherford orchestrated the biggest deal in the National Hockey League on July 1. Rutherford pulled the trigger on acquiring winger Phil Kessel, one of the league’s best snipers, from the Toronto Maple Leafs.

“We needed another guy that can contribute at important times and can score,” Rutherford said. “He’s a guy that at any time he can break a game open. And the good thing about him is that when he first came here, he bought into the team concept, and he’s been a very good team player.”

Rutherford then had to make a tough decision on center Brandon Sutter. He was in the final year of his contract and the team knew they couldn’t afford to re-sign him. So Rutherford traded him to Vancouver in exchange for Nick Bonino and Adam Clendening.

The money the team saved on Sutter’s salary actually helped them to add two more veteran centers to bolster their lineup down the middle in Eric Fehr and Matt Cullen.

“The biggest thing for me is in last year’s offseason when we were adding players, we really focused on adding character and leadership,” Rutherford said. “‘Sid’ is a terrific leader, but the more leadership you put into the room the better you’re going to be in dealing with difficult situations. And you’re always going to deal with those situations in the playoffs. We were very fortunate that the guys we added were real character players.”

The Pens struggles were apparent to start the season. Though their record wasn’t abysmal at 15-10-8, the team wasn’t passing Rutherford’s eye test.

“There was something about this team, especially when you looked at the start of the season, that wasn’t right,” Rutherford said. “With the kind of players we had, we weren’t playing the style of game that was going to make us successful.”

After Rutherford watched the Pens lose back-to-back games against Columbus and New Jersey, 2-1 and 4-0 respectfully, on Nov. 13-14, he began to consider a change.

Following a shootout loss to the Los Angeles Kings on Dec. 11, Rutherford knew the time had come to make a change. A change at the top.

On Dec. 12 Rutherford announced the Mike Sullivan would become the team’s new head coach, replacing Mike Johnston.

“The process started after our weekend with Columbus and New Jersey,” Sullivan said at the time. “I really saw poor efforts. Losing a game is one thing. But it’s about the night’s work that we put in trying to win that game.”

Sullivan steered the Pens from a fragile and powerless team into one of the league’s most resilient and deadly offensive groups.

“When Mike Sullivan came in, there was an immediate connection between the players and the coach,” Rutherford said. “His philosophy about how we’re going to play the game suited these players. Then it was just a matter of time.”

The Pens finished the season on a 33-12-5 run under Sullivan, which included an 8-1 run to end the regular season even without All-Stars Malkin and Fleury. And in 54 games under Sullivan, the Pens averaged 3.24 goals per game, the top figure in the NHL.

“The thing I like the most is he wins,” Rutherford said with a smirk. “He’s just a regular guy. Everything comes from the heart. He treats everybody the same. He treats his top players the same as he treats his depth players. If somebody has to be told, ‘we need a correction somewhere,’ they’re told. But all the players respect that. He takes the time to communicate with them and really connected with the players.

“When you’re around them a little bit, you can understand why. He’s a very, very good coach. He understands the game. He makes the adjustments. He doesn’t waste any time. At the end of the day, we like him because he wins.”

Sullivan changed the attitude, environment and identity in the Pens’ locker room. But to fully play to his style, he needed faster players. And that’s where Rutherford stepped in.

Rutherford knew the problem from the very beginning.

“Coming out of training camp I knew we had to get quicker,” Rutherford said. “Certainly the first couple of months it showed. When we were playing back-to-back games or three in four nights, our team started to look slow. We started to look like an older team.”

In order to play in Sullivan’s system, it requires strong breakout passes from the defensemen and north-south attack mentality. But at the heart of everything is team speed.

Sullivan needed the pieces to move on the chessboard. So Rutherford went out and gave his coach those pieces.

The first deal he made, which ironically was finalized during Sullivan’s first game behind the bench on De. 14. Pittsburgh acquired defenseman Trevor Daley from the Chicago Blackhawks in exchange for Rob Scuderi, with the Pens’ retaining a portion of Scuderi’s salary.

“I had talked to Chicago for some time about Trevor, he was having a tough time adjusting to Chicago,” Rutherford said. “I know it’s hard when a team wins a Stanley Cup and a new player comes in the next year. They’re kind of out there on their own. Everybody is still talking about last year and so I can understand why it was hard for him there, but we were finally able to make that deal.”

Rutherford, who apparently never sleeps, put the finishes touches on a deal that brought Carl Hagelin to Pittsburgh from Anaheim while the Pens were aboard the team charter flying home from a game at Tampa Bay.

The Pens announced the deal at 3 a.m. after touching down. Rutherford informed David Perron and Clendening that they would be leaving for Anaheim.

“In Hagelin’s case we were judging him based on what he did with the (New York) Rangers and he was having a tough time adjusting in Anaheim,” Rutherford said. “So we were able to add those guys and their speed made a difference.”

Finally, at the NHL’s trade deadline Rutherford wanted to add more depth on the blue line. So he picked up Justin Schultz from Edmonton for a 2016 third-round pick.

“We wanted to add more depth on defense, and we went out and got Schultz,” Rutherford said. “We felt a change for him would have been good, and I think that he’s played very well for us, and he’s still a young guy.”

But the biggest change to the lineup came from within. There was a youth movement as the Pens’ roster was overtaken by players that were developed and drafted by the organization.

Although they weren’t household names at the start of the season, Tom Kuhnhackl, Bryan Rust, Conor Sheary, Oskar Sundqvist, Scott Wilson, Derrick Pouliot and Matt Murray all became NHL players by season’s end.

“Of course the young guys we’ve brought up from the minors are quick also,” Rutherford noted. “We changed the outlook of our team dramatically.”

Some youngsters contributed in small ways, like adding energy, speed and enthusiasm, and other contributed in big ways, like Murray taking over the goaltending duties with Fleury out with a concussion and leading the Pens to the conference finals.

But it was the development of players in the organization that gave Rutherford the flexibility to stand (mostly) pat on the NHL’s trade deadline.

“I didn’t feel that we had to make some big earth-shattering trade,” Rutherford said. “We had enough good young players coming that were ready to play.”

Now the Pens find themselves as one of four teams remaining in contention for the Stanley Cup. They’ve come a long way from the team that sat in the 12th spot in the Eastern Conference at one point in the season.

And take this to note:
  • Kessel leads the team in scoring with 12 points, and has posted two two-goal games in the postseason, which includes the series-clinching Game 6 victory over Washington.
  • Bonino leads the Pens with eight assists while pivoting the team’s most productive line, and he scored the series-clinching overtime goal in Game 6 against the Caps.
  • Hornqvist posted a hat trick against the NY Rangers in the First Round, following that up with the overtime winner in Game 4 against Washington in the Second Round.
  • Daley shouldered 28:41 minutes of ice time and chipped in a goal and plus-3 when Letang was forced to serve a one-game suspension in game 4 vs. the Caps. He also hit 26:48 minutes and added an assist in Game 6 against Washington.
  • Cullen and Fehr have scored two game-winning goals each, while be valuable members of the team’s PK unit.
Cullen was with Rutherford in Carolina when the Hurricanes won their only Stanley Cup title in franchise history in 2006, exactly 10 years ago. That team was led by a firey coach in Peter Laviolette, featured a mixture of veteran and young players, and were even led by a rookie goaltender in Cam Ward.

Rutherford can’t help but see the similarities.

“In order to win you have to have real character, and that’s what that team had, and that’s what this team has,” Rutherford said. “You’re just playing to win the game. You’re playing one game at a time. You just want to score one more goal than the other team, and whoever does it, does it, and that’s all that’s going to matter.”

Even if that goal comes from an unlikely source.

“I don’t care if Matt Murray scores the goal,” Rutherford said with a laugh. “As long as we get one more than the other team. This is a team that’s about winning, and however we end up winning, that’s all I care about.”
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