Letting a Hobo Drive Your Lambo by @BrianK_PI - PensInitiative | Pittsburgh Penguins Blog | Rumors | News

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Thursday, November 6, 2014

Letting a Hobo Drive Your Lambo by @BrianK_PI

A Lamborghini is one hell of a car. It doesn't matter the model; it's an impressive piece of Italian automotive engineering resulting in a powerful and responsive drive - as well as a hefty price tag. If you were to make a list of people you'd feel comfortable handing over the keys to such a vehicle with no strings attached, to let them fully push the car to its limits, surely your list would be Formula 1 drivers, stunt drivers, etc. Basically anyone with extensive experience handling high-end vehicles at top-end speeds. You certainly wouldn't walk down the street, drop the keys in a random homeless man's cup, and ask him to return the vehicle to you later in the week.

In a similar manner, the Pittsburgh Penguins are much like a Lamborghini. They're a top end team with several elite talents; a team that can reach break neck speeds and really pour on the offense when allowed to fully attack the opposing defense. Like handing out the keys to take care of a Lambo, it's important to have someone truly top-end in charge of the team. Yet when Mario Lemieux and Ron Burkle cleaned house and handed over the keys to the team, they did so by naming Jim Rutherford as the next General Manager. The same Jim Rutherford who was forced out by the Carolina Hurricanes due to a lack of success. The same Jim Rutherford who had seen his teams make a whopping total of five playoffs appearances during his 20 seasons as GM of the Whalers/Hurricanes. The same Jim Rutherford who proved himself to be little more than mediocre over an extended time frame.

I made my opinions on his hiring abundantly clear shortly thereafter, but it's things like re-signing Marc-Andre Fleury for too many years at too of a cap hit for too little value that serves to re-emphasize the fears of handing him control all over again. It's not really a surprise to see such a move from Rutherford. His final years in Carolina saw him sign Tomas Kaberle to a big money deal, trade him after just 29 games, then watch him wash out of the NHL on a compliance buyout shortly thereafter. He signed Alexander Semin to an even bigger deal, and Semin has become a healthy scratch in just the second year of his contract. It's not really a surprise because Rutherford made a similar move in Carolina when he extended Cam Ward for big money. It's not even really a surprise to again see Rutherford make a sizable commitment just five months on the job, despite there being little incentive to complete a deal before the end of the season.

Fact of the matter is that while the value and term for the Marc-Andre Fleury contract might be reasonable in the context of what he'd receive on the open market, it's an awful value for the Pittsburgh Penguins. At best he's an average NHL goaltender, but average goaltending can be obtained much more cheaply than $5.75 million per season. At worst, he's a solid step below average, as his inability to differentiate himself from mostly awful backups questions how much of an effect the team in front of him has helped him out.

The contract extension has been debated ad nauseam the past couple of days, and several really good pieces and eloquently explained opinions have been laid out. Ryan Wilson wrote an excellent piece detailing the arguments against Marc-Andre Fleury where he thoroughly goes through measure after measure where Fleury falls short in comparison to his peers. I'm going to steal a line from his article, because it's a point the fanbase keeps badly missing in trying to justify the deal:

"It was never about finding a guy that is significantly better than Fleury, it was about getting somebody who can do what he does for much less. Greiss more than fits that bill."

It's not a strong goalie free agent market, but even then it's not impossible to find guys who can give league average goaltending, especially playing behind this Penguins team. Thomas Greiss would be one. Josh Harding would be another. Jhonas Enroth, despite playing on some truly awful Buffalo Sabres teams, could be another. Jeff Zatkoff of all people managed to do it last season, and he's still in the organization. Platoon a couple of these types of goalies together and the team could have average goaltending at a very reasonable price, allowing them to further improve their skaters. And if free agency had proven not to work out, the team still could have addressed the position through a trade once next season had begun.

Adam Gretz touches on how interchangeable most goalies are, to some extent, and how outside a select few at both extremes the difference is minimal. He posts one table that really demonstrates a point not many people seem to be grasping. The Anaheim Ducks, Pittsburgh Penguins, Buffalo Sabres, and Toronto Maple Leafs all finished last season with a 0.914 save percentage. However, the Ducks (209) and Penguins (207) finished with far fewer goals allowed than the Sabres (248) and the Maple Leafs (256). The Chicago Blackhawks were much worse (0.905) as far as save percentage was concerned, but they finished with a similar amount of goals allowed (212) as Pittsburgh and Anaheim.

The point he's making is just how much more important limiting shots against is than the actual player playing the position. The teams managed to save an equal percentage of their shots faced, yet it reflects very differently in their goals allowed because the Sabres and Maple Leafs faced far more shots. Possession plays a huge role here, and by paying a much smaller price for average goaltending the Penguins could have saved millions and used that money towards a top six winger or towards further enhancing the bottom six. It would have allowed them to build a stronger team in front of their netminder, leading to a more dominant team, better possession, and fewer goals allowed.

The new front office claimed to be one that would use analytics, but it's becoming clear that all they know how to use are buzzwords. The stats don't justify the deal, and it's hard to justify signing a goaltender who still isn't particularly strong with fundamentals/positioning and relies on athletic ability to a big money contract extension through his 34 year old season. Fleury is nearing the end of his athletic prime, and unless he morphs into a technical goalie in a hurry the results aren't likely to be pretty.

But that's what the Penguins are going to get with Jim Rutherford in charge. While he'll do things like put together a great first day of free agency, which he did a tremendous job with all while maintaining future flexibility, he'll still do things like pay way too much for average goaltending. He helped patch some of the holes Ray Shero had left, but he's making new holes himself. He'll do things like butcher the James Neal trade. Patric Hornqvist has shown himself to be a great target to acquire, but getting Nick Spaling thrown into the deal was a bad mistake. He's now paying a 4th liner too much money, and didn't pick up any draft pick compensation or retained salary. And despite not exchanging any draft picks, he still rushed into the trade at the draft. Darren Dreger reported that several teams, notably the Flames, were upset Rutherford didn't shop Neal more, and it's fair to speculate that the Penguins could have gotten a better return if the deal hadn't needed to be done on draft night.

Not maximizing his value on the Neal trade is a small mistake, getting Spaling at the expense of draft picks or retained salary is a small mistake, paying Spaling too much to be a 4th line winger is a small mistake, but in a salary cap world the small mistakes add up quickly, especially after making a big mistake for $5.75 million. Rutherford has been a mediocre GM for years with Carolina, and he shouldn't have been allowed anywhere near the Pittsburgh job, because these are the types of moves your'e going to see with him in charge. Don't be surprised if he trades someone like Scott Harrington for a rental like Martin Erat either in an attempt to push Pittsburgh over the top, because it's clear that he doesn't have a great sense of value and if he thinks he needs a top 9 player, expect him to be aggressive.

And with adding up the little mistakes, the Penguins are already at $53.7 million for next season with just 12 players under contract. If they extend Ehrhoff in January as they've been rumored to be interested in doing, that number will likely jump ~$5 million to $58.7 million for 13 players. They're already playing this season short of a full 23 man roster due to cap limitations, and they're likely to feel the pinch again. Blake Comeau and Steve Downie have been great for the Pens so far, but if they keep it up they won't be making a combined $1.7 million next year. Every dollar matters in a salary cap world, and Rutherford likely spent an extra $3-4 million than he had to on the level of goaltending production Marc-Andre Fleury will provide. The team settled on a mediocre general manager, and now the mediocre general manager has settled on a mediocre goaltender.

I know this opinion is likely to be unpopular, but the drum needs to be beaten. The Penguins can still compete at a high level with Jim Rutherford in charge, but he certainly doesn't maximize their chances. Far from it. The league is at a crossroads with how franchises are being run, yet the Penguins went out and hired a dinosaur. And not a T-Rex of his time either, but the type of dinosaur the T-Rex makes a meal out of. Jim Rutherford was a completely uninspired choice for a top-end team, and now is first big deal is completely uninspired as well. He's going to make moves that his team will need to overcome to succeed, and the MAF extension is the latest example. To go back to the Lamborghini analogy, Jim Rutherford isn't the homeless man, but there's still too great a chance the Lambo ends up wrapped around a tree.

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