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Younger, faster, harder to play against

by Sam Kasan @PensInsideScoop / Penguins

After the Penguins suffered a sweep at the hands of the New York Islanders in the First Round of the 2019 Stanley Cup playoffs, general manager Jim Rutherford said changes would come. 

"There will be changes in our team," he told a gathering of media on locker room cleanout day in mid-April. 

He summarized the biggest reason for the team's sudden downfall from winning back-to-back Stanley Cup titles a mere two seasons ago: "I wonder if it's because there's too many guys content with where they're at in their careers after winning a couple Stanley Cups. Is that a signal where some of that has to be changed, where you get that eagerness again?"

It's been a busy summer for Rutherford, who was named to the Hockey Hall of Fame on June 25. He finished his HOF press conference by saying the next thing he'll do is "probably (go) back to my office and see if we can change this team like I've been trying to do for two months." 

The team had three main objectives for its offseason plans. According to head coach Mike Sullivan: "We want to get younger, we want to get faster and we want to become a team that's more difficult to play against."

Through a serious of trades and signings Rutherford acquired Alex Galchenyuk, Dominik Kahun and Brandon Tanev. In those moves the Pens shipped out winger Phil Kessel and defenseman Olli Maatta. 

"When you look at some of the players that Jim's acquired, they check a lot of those boxes," Sullivan said. "We're a faster team. We're harder to play against. I think the enthusiasm and energy these guys have already shown with the opportunity that's in front of all of us."

That enthusiasm and energy was also felt by Rutherford himself. 

"It's new energy, it's new excitement," Rutherford said. "The three new guys that we've brought in that I talked to they were so excited they were coming through the phone. (If) they bring that excitement to training camp, to our room, every day for practice and throughout the year, that's what we're looking for."

Galchenyuk, 25, was the third-overall pick of the 2012 NHL Draft (held in Pittsburgh) by Montreal. Though he can play center or wing, he has a nasty shot and is a natural goal scorer. 

Galchenyuk recorded a career-high 30 goals with the Canadiens in 2015-16. He led an Arizona team that struggled to score goals with 19 last season, as well as potting nine power-play goals. 

"Wing is the best place for him," Rutherford said. "He's a shooter. He's a scorer.

"Alex has scored in the past. He's very capable of scoring goals. If he plays to the level that he's capable of he should be a guy that contributes a lot of goals."

Sullivan envisions Galchenyuk being a big addition to the Penguins' power play. 

"Alex Galchenyuk is an interesting player that has shown an ability to score goals and can really shoot the puck," Sullivan said. 

Kahun is another young player - just 23 years old - that can play wing and center. He adds a lot of speed and skill, while being able to contribute on special teams. 

The versatility of the forwards will give the Pens more flexibility both in their lineup makeup and with depth down the middle. 

"When you think about where we were a year ago, wondering what we were going to do with our center ice and depth we had to where we are today," Rutherford mused, "where you've got (Jared) McCann playing the wing that's a natural center, you've got Kahun on the wing, you're going to have Galchenyuk, we have a lot of depth (at center). (Teddy) Blueger has established himself now as a regular NHL player. So, we feel pretty good about our strength there."

Tanev, 27, is a player that can help the club roll four lines. He's also the type of player that the Pens truly covet, someone that is hard to play against. Despite playing a bottom-6 role with limited ice time in Winnipeg last season, Tanev ranked third in the NHL in both hits (278) and blocked shots among forwards (81). 

But it's the ferocious intensity and endless motor with which he plays that makes him such a pest to deal with for opponents. He will hound the opposition with every stride he takes. 

"Everyone in the organization thinks very highly of him," Rutherford said. "He's a guy that makes our team harder to play against." 

There have been a lot of changes from the team since the onset of the 2018-19 season. Along with Kessel and Maatta, also departed are Derick Brassard, Carl Hagelin, Riley Sheahan, Daniel Sprong and Jamie Oleksiak. 

In that process the Pens have also added Nick Bjugstad and McCann while Blueger could fill a bigger role on the team this year. The Pens have become younger, faster and harder to play against. 

"It gives us depth throughout our lineup," Rutherford said. "Much more balance so that we can get back to where we were in '16 and '17 (the two Cup seasons) where the coach can roll those lines and maybe play the lines a little more on an even-minutes basis." 

On defense, the Pens are expecting bigger contributions from youngsters Marcus Pettersson and Juuso Riikola. And veteran Erik Gudbranson proved a valuable player during the playoffs. 

"I like the way our D is structured," Rutherford said. "We've got the right shots where they should be and the left shots where they should be. Can we make it better? Sure. You can always make your defense better. 

"At this point, I'm comfortable with our defense."

Rutherford promised changes. And those changes came. Now it's about taking all those changes and forming them into one cohesive unit. 

"We've changed the makeup of our team," Rutherford said. "Now it's (on to) training camp and a time where the coach will have to work hard to bring it all together." 

The coach working to bring it together will be Sullivan, who signed a four-year contract extension last Friday. 

"I think Jim has done a great job as far as addressing some of the needs that we felt were important as far as improving our team," Sullivan said. "We've always talked about surrounding our core guys with the right people that gives them the opportunity to be at their best and we can play to our strengths. Some of the moves that Jim has made, although they're not blockbuster deals, we believe they're real smart, prudent moves that can help our team improve and get better. 

"I'm excited about the group of players that we have. We believe we have a group that has the potential to be a very competitive hockey team. Now the challenge is for all of us to come together and bring that to fruition."

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