When Ray Shero was surprisingly fired after the Penguins blew a 3-1 lead against the NY Rangers last season, a couple of reasons stood above the rest. A series of questionable contracts, highlighted by Rob Scuderi's four year, $13.5 million deal, stood out . A bottom six devoid of much legitimate NHL talent helped doom the team in the playoffs. The team was old, and the future was mortgaged through trading too many draft picks and not developing the players in the system well enough. Ownership decided a change was needed, and they decided on bringing Jim Rutherford aboard as the next general manager. Through his first year on the job, he's shown himself willing to wheel and deal at the same rate as his predecessor, with the same willingness to part with draft picks and future assets.
David Perron was a good acquisition, but a costly one. He's worth the 1st round pick and solid bottom line player the Pens gave up, especially since he's played well with Sidney Crosby and is under contract for next season, but it's still a price the team had to pay because of how bare the organizational cupboard was at forward. With the prices paid nearing the deadline this season, Daniel Winnik was a fair value at a 2016 2nd round pick and a 2015 4th. Trading for Ian Cole was a great move. Ian Cole is a guy Pittsburgh can stick in the lineup in the playoffs without nearly the amount of reservations as they would if Robert Bortuzzo needed to take the ice. He's a restricted free agent after this season, but the Pens control his rights and he offers far more upside than Bortuzzo did.
After putting his team on notice, seeing them respond with an impressive pair of victories in back to back nights, and acquiring Daniel Winnik, Jim Rutherford proclaimed that he felt "the team we have now has as good a chance (to win the Stanley Cup) as any other team". Problem is, it's a questionable statement, and it's questionable how well GMJR is at assessing that. Rutherford managed to make just five postseasons in his 20 years as the GM of Hartford/Carolina. The current Penguins team is going to look like an all star team compared to what he was icing many years with the Hurricanes franchise. And the Simon Despres - Ben Lovejoy trade is exactly the type of trade a team makes to put themselves over the top and solidify a Stanley Cup roster. It's arguable who would be the better player for Pittsburgh to have down the stretch run this season. The team hasn't been happy with Despres' consistency, but they're trading that for the uncertainty of how much Cam Fowler's talent has reflected itself in Lovejoy's game.
It's a questionable trade for this season, but the worst part is that it's only likely to look worse as the years go on. Despres is 23 year old, cost controlled defenseman seeing his first real extended NHL action this year. Not many defensemen can step into the lineup successfully before being able to legally drink, and Pittsburgh has been spoiled with the success Olli Maatta and Derrick Pouliot have had. Despres is developing on a normal timeline for a young blueliner, and he's signed through next season, after which he'll become a restricted free agent. Ben Lovejoy's also signed through next season, but he's currently a 31 year old defenseman likely at the top of his career arc, and it wasn't a very high arc to begin with. It can be argued that the Pens are better off with Lovejoy/Cole than they were with Despres/Bortuzzo, that Cole can fill a similar role in the organziational plans that Despres was providing, and that Despres had a questionable future with the team, but they're lazy arguments. Looking at now and into the future the Pens would have been better off with Despre/Cole than they are with Lovejoy/Cole, having a young defenseman with room to grow in his restricted free agency years is good, but having two of them is better, and regardless of his role Despres had a lot more value than what he brought back.
And that's the problem. It's the type of trade a Stanley Cup favorite can afford to make, because even losing out on the value, if it's something that puts the team over the top, it's worth it. Rutherford clearly believes the team is at that level, but they just aren't. They're going to be in an absolute dogfight to make it out of the Easter Conference semifinals, as at this point it looks like they'll likely need to beat both the Rangers and Islanders to do so. Both New York teams have strong rosters this year, they've both had good success against the Pens this season, and they both have a good chance to see themselves as favorites over Pittsburgh in a seven game series.
Going all in too many times is a recipe for eventually going broke. When Ray Shero took out all the stops to shoot for a second Stanley Cup in 2013, he did so with a team that was clearly the best in the Eastern Conference. In hindsight, the moves didn't work out. They made the team older and slower, and shook up a team that was doing great in a negative way. The results were questionable, but the mindset made sense. It was a team that was at the top, and Shero rolled the dice at pushing them over the top. This year's team is more in the middle of the playoff pack in the conference, but Rutherford has the same mindset, and he also hasn't separated the team from the pack when the dust settled. The Penguins now hold only a 2nd round pick in the upcoming draft and might be more likely than not to see themselves bow out after the first round. They have 14 players under contract for next season at a combined AAV of $59.0 million. They'll need to completely rebuild their bottom six again; ideally they trade Brandon Sutter's $3.3 million cap hit while someone in the league still sees him as having value, and it's unlikely to see lightning strike twice in free agency again this year. The rest of the season and the playoffs will likely be an audition for Pouliot, Cole, and Lovejoy to show the team can afford to let both Paul Martin and Christian Ehrhoff go in free agency, but even if those three come up short the team might not have the room to bring either of those two back.
The all in move is bold, flashy, and when it works looks like a genius move, but it's still a calculated move that needs to be pulled off under the right circumstances. Sixth place in the conference isn't the place to be making that move from. It'll be an uphill battle for the Pens this postseason, and the lack of young assets, player development, and available cap space will continue to make it an uphill battle. The team got rid of Ray Shero last offseason in large part because ownership wanted to see a change in how the team was being run. So far, in this aspect, nothing has changed. Young, talented players during their cost-controlled years are the lifeblood of the most successful teams. They allow cap dollars to be stretched further as teams are getting premium production from marginal price tags. If the organization doesn't change their mindset, they're going to find it increasingly difficult to compete in a salary cap world.