By Brian Metzer
Pittsburgh Current Hockey Writer
Pittsburgh Penguins general manager Jim Rutherford is mad as hell and he isn’t going to take it anymore. At least that is what it seemed like when he took to his bi-weekly radio show on the Penguins Radio Network Wednesday night with a scathing assessment of his club.
The interview came ahead of the Penguins 2-1 loss to the Washington Capitals, which marked the team’s first five-game losing streak under head coach Mike Sullivan.
Rutherford isn’t one to hold back, but this was different. He was brutally honest in assessing all aspects of his team from the top players down through his goaltenders.
“Has this team been together too long? It’s something I always have to watch for,” Rutherford said. “When do you have to make those changes? The players are doing everything they can to tell me now’s the time.”
The veteran GM seemed to be particularly put off by how his young players are performing.
It wouldn’t be out of the question to hear the fan base discuss young players allowing their performance to slip after experiencing great successes early in their careers, but when Rutherford makes those comments they carry more weight.
“At a young age, guys win Stanley Cups and a lot of guys go their whole career and they don’t even get close to it,” Rutherford said. “We’ve got some young guys that won a couple, then they get bigger contracts and then they kind of settle in. They forget what got them to where they are today.”
Though he is 26-years-old, this statement could have been geared at forward Bryan Rust, who signed a four year, $14 million dollar contact this summer, but has only produced one goal and three points in 14 games this season.
He went on to include players who are looking for new contracts following this season.
“Maybe they change their game,” he said. “Maybe they think scoring more goals or getting more points is what’s going to get them more money. So they get away from their game, what their role is.”
Forwards Riley Sheahan, Matt Cullen and Carl Hagelin are the only regulars who are unrestricted free agents following this season. It is worth noting that Jake Guentzel and Daniel Sprong will be looking for new contracts following next season.
Sprong was mentioned specifically during the interview as a player who has yet to reach the heights that management has projected for him. Rutherford was thrilled to select him in the second round of the 2015 draft because his scouts projected him as a first round talent. That has not shown through as of yet and his name has started to surface in trade rumors.
“We hoped Sprong would be in the top nine,” Rutherford said. “He hasn’t jumped ahead of anybody on the right side so he’s playing on the fourth line. It’s not ideal.”
Rutherford, a former goaltender, didn’t hold back when it came to assessing his masked men, particularly starter Matt Murray.
Murray has appeared in nine games, posting a 4-4-1 record with a 3.87 goals against average, .886 save percentage and one shutout.
“The two years we won the Cup, we were playing at times the way we’re playing now, but between (Marc-Andre) Fleury and (Matt) Murray, they were phenomenal in goal and they were hard to score against,” Rutherford said. “That’s not what we’re getting now. We’re getting inconsistent goaltending.”
The team has wasted a few solid goaltending performances by not being able to score. That was the case against the Capitals. They generated 42 shots, 13 of which came from Sidney Crosby and Phil Kessel, but could only beat goaltender Braden Holtby one time.
Crosby got the lone goal, but the Penguins are again starting to look a bit top heavy, a fact that isn’t lost on the GM.
“It’s almost like the guys come to the game and say, ‘Let’s just let the top guys do it. Let Sid and Geno and Phil and Letang carry us and well just get through the game and move on to the next game,’ and forget about the work ethic it takes or forget about the role they play,” Rutherford said.
Rutherford has been in the league for a long time and this interview was probably his way of sending a strong message to his club. Part of his message included a few personnel moves ahead of the game against Capitals – calling up forwards Zach Aston-Reese and Garrett Wilson. He also sent Derek Grant to Wilkes Barre/Scranton.
Both newcomers were inserted into the lineup and didn’t disappoint. The entire team seemed to be energized and put together one of their finest games in over a week. They generated a ton of scoring chances, put up 42 shots and looked solid defensively. Unfortunately a late mistake manifested in a goal for the Capitals T.J. Oshie and lost again.
He’s aggressive in terms of making trades, but Rutherford said that there isn’t a whole lot out there on the market right now. He also added that he isn’t helming a fantasy team and the salary cap will impact any moves that he might make.
He’s sure that his players are well aware that the call-ups were meant as a message, but he won’t be shy about making more moves if he has to.
“Once they start coming, I don’t need to tell anybody. Actions are louder than words,” he said. “This will be the first move of a few if we don’t get it going.
“We have the players that can work through it. Sometimes they can. Sometimes they can’t. I wonder if this group’s been together too long and if we need to change it up, but that’s what I’ll watch for here in the next few games.”
Malkin avoids supplemental discipline
The NHL was buzzing about a collision between Evgeni Malkin and Oshie on Wednesday. The Capitals forward came at Malkin with speed looking to make contact, but Malkin braced for impact and leaned his shoulder into Oshie.
Malkin is two inches taller than Oshie, who was bent as they collided, so his shoulder made direct contact with Oshie’s head. The smaller player tumbled to the ice and left the game for a period of time before returning to score the game-winning goal.
By all accounts, the NHL’s department of Player Safety likely determined that Malkin was bracing for impact and that the in-game punishment was sufficient.