The 2014 offseason was supposed to be about fixing the issues that plagued the Pittsburgh Penguins franchise. The buildup to the playoffs hinted that Dan Bylsma very well could be a short timer. It appeared the team was increasingly tuning him out, that there was growing discontent in a locker room that had been one of the tightest-knit groups in the entire league, that his strategies and adjustments were routinely being outdone by the coach on the other bench. Despite the rumors swirling around, the Pens were one win away from a second consecutive appearance in the Eastern Conference Finals. But the team collapsed over the final three games, had trouble scoring on Henrik Lundqvist, and brought up playoff memories that had become all to familiar over the previous five seasons. It was impossible to ignore the elephant in the room any longer, and it was clear that a deft touch was needed to right the ship that was straying off course and get the franchise back on the path to a championship. What ended up happening was a messy and, at times, downright embarrassing series of events that led to David Morehouse making a power grab and gaining the reins to the franchise.
And once gaining control, Morehouse set out and butchered the entire process before Ray Shero was even able to finish packing his things. See, Shero had a direct line to the ownership group, one that didn't need to go through David Morehouse. By ousting Shero, Morehouse was able to control all the power, all the decisions, be the only one reporting to the ownership group and have the entire franchise below him under his control. Problem of course is that Morehouse was brought into the organization solely for his political contacts and ability to help land the team the new arena it so badly needed. He had no previous hockey experience, and has objectively provided little extra value to the franchise since CEC opened that an outside marketing firm couldn't have also done. Despite serving his usefulness in getting arena funds secured and having no real place in the organization afterwards, Morehouse remained with the franchise and continued to climb the corporate ladder.
And after gaining control, the first decision Morehouse made was beyond cowardly. Ray Shero was dismissed as General Manager, but instead of relieving Dan Bylsma of his coaching duties he kept him in limbo despite the organization clearly having no intention of moving forward with him as their head coach. Instead of doing what needed to be done, he tossed it onto the next general manager's desk. He didn't have to make the final decision and he got further validation by an outsider deeming what his new bosses would tell him to be true. I'm not going to say anything in hindsight about Dan Bylsma that I didn't say at the time - a change was absolutely needed and was unavoidable after that postseason collapse. But Bylsma won the team a Stanley Cup and captured a Jack Adams Award behind the bench in Pittsburgh - he certainly deserved better than he got.
With Shero fired and the (in)decision on Bylsma's fate made, the focus turned into an overly-exhaustive search for the next general manager that seemed to settle on two candidates: Pierre McGuire and Jim Rutherford. McGuire is, of course, a broadcaster for the NBC Network who famously flamed out as coach of the Hartford Whalers and hadn't held an NHL job in any capacity in nearly twenty years. Of course, the reason he might have been the first choice between the two is because he is arguably more qualified than Jim Rutherford. While we might assume that Pierre McGuire would have been an awful GM, it would be an assumption. Twenty years of ineptitude has shown that Jim Rutherford is an awful GM. After managing to miss the playoffs in an astounding 15 of the 20 seasons he spent as the general manager of the Whalers/Hurricanes franchise, and with a series of moves in recent years that are puzzling at best, Rutherford somehow gained a position of control in a franchise featuring two of the very best players in the game today.
The decision was framed as a chance to mentor what turned into a small army of associate and assistant general managers, but it's turned into too many cooks in the kitchen for a franchise that seems to lack any clear direction of where they want to go. And again, that decision was a cowardly move. Pairing Rutherford with Jason Botterill (and Tom Fitzgerald and Bill Guerin) was nothing more than a "Cover Your Ass" move made if the shit hit the fan. Botterill could've been named the next GM, and probably should've been given the desire to keep him in Pittsburgh, but the outrage from the fanbase would've been intense and an inexperienced GM failing would've reflected poorly on the guy who hired him. Conversely, if Rutherford was hired without a succession/mentoring plan in place, if/when he drove the franchise into the ground his track record of being an awful GM also would've reflected poorly on the guy who hired him. But both? You've got a young up and comer who needed some more seasoning (no, not really) being mentored by someone with plenty of experience (of doing a terrible job). If it doesn't work, who could have come up with a better plan?
To make a long story short, Rutherford comes in and fires Bylsma within minutes and needs to hire a new head coach. The Pittsburgh Penguins GM consortium starts off on the wrong foot by hiring Rick Tocchet before hiring the new head coach after basically telling the media they had their number one guy, foreshadowing just how well this patched together front office would end up working together. After making sure to turn the coaching search into as much of a debacle as the search for a new GM, Rutherford hires Mike Johnston, who was previously coaching in junior hockey and whose NHL experience consisted of a few years as an assistant coach. The cherry on top was explaining the hire by saying Johnston wasn't on his original list because he thought Johnston wasn't available. Really? Is the allure of junior hockey so great that Rutherford thought Johnston wouldn't want an NHL job without bothering to check with him first? It's hard to tell after watching him in action if he was trying to explain away not getting his top choice or was really that clueless, because either explanation seems incredibly plausible.
Next up is draft day, where Rutherford rushes into a trade for James Neal despite no draft picks taking place, despite reportedly half the league showing interest, and with Calgary, and possibly others, wishing they had been given more of a chance to negotiate before Rutherford locked in on Nashville. Despite the interest, he only managed to walk away with Patric Hornqvist, who is a good top six player, and Nick Spaling, who has been a $2.2 million anchor after being dropped back to his natural bottom six role in the lineup. No draft picks, no retained salary, and seemingly no effort at maximizing James Neal's value.
The team has since gone on to have their worst season scoring since Sidney Crosby came into the league. It's little wonder why you don't hire a GM with a track record of incompetence and let him start making major deals a month after being announced, but compounding the problem was that he didn't have his finger on the pulse of this team. The Pittsburgh Penguins have always been a team that will look for the extra pass, move the puck one extra time to a guy in a better position to shoot, to pass up a good shot for a great shot. James Neal was a guy that could find those spots and be willing to fire the puck. A net front presence is only as good as the amount of shots a team is willing to take with him on the ice.
Another big problem plaguing the team has been an awful bottom six. Brandon Sutter (re-signed by GMRJ) has continued to show why Ray Shero was rumored to have been wanting to trade him. Steve Downie (signed by GMJR) had a productive start to the season but has proven himself to be more of a liability than an asset with his inability to stay out of the box. Nick Spaling (acquired by GMJR) has been invisible. Words can't describe how awful Maxim Lapierre (acquired by GMJR) has been since coming over from St. Louis. In 33 games with the Penguins, Lapierre has 2 assists and a CF% of just 43.2%. The bigger problem isn't just assembling an awful bottom six, it's having the pieces for a better one and tossing them aside. Rob Klinkhammer (traded away by GMJR) has been a solid possession player throughout his career and had posted 3 points in 10 games with a 53.6% CF% while in Pittsburgh. Mark Arcobello (waived by GMJR) has 22 points and a CF% of 52.0% this season. Marcel Goc (traded by GMJR) has been disappointing this season though still near breakeven in Corsi (49.5%), but was the answer to trade him for a guy playing at Zach Sill's level? Was the answer really to play Craig Adams and Sill for that long into the season instead of seeing what the team had with players who have shown more talent in the lineup with other players who had shown more talent?
And it's a bumbling mindset that just cannot be escaped. In a year with a generational talent being available in the entry draft, how do you trade your first round pick unprotected if it ends up winning the lottery when having no apparent rival bidders that early in the season? Edmonton was probably thrilled to get another first round pick in the mid-20s range - did they not think to ask? Did they think they couldn't afford to hold to their guns? Approaching the trade deadline, the Penguins were fairly indistinguishable from most of the Eastern Conference. For a team already hurting from trading away picks and young players, tapping the breaks would have likely been the prudent course of action. Rutherford declares his team as much a threat as anyone and trades a 4th and 2016 2nd for a rental player in Daniel Winnik and, in what can only be described as an awful trade with the potential to get worse, he trades Simon Despres for Ben Lovejoy in a trade he believes they'll lose. Mission accomplished there Jim!
In a tight salary cap situation, with the need to rebuild the bottom six yet again, how can the team possibly afford to keep Jim Rutherford around? In just one year Rutherford has managed to make tremendous strides in replicating the work he put in for Carolina. How does a team expect to better their chances of taking down a title by putting the unqualified Morehouse, the incompetent Rutherford, and the product of nepotism (Jeremy Karmanos - who got fired by his own father!) as the hockey braintrust?
You don't. And it doesn't matter how the last couple of games play out for this team. And provided they make the playoffs, does a deep run in the postseason short of a Stanley Cup title change anything other than to allow this circus to continue next year? David Morehouse made a powerplay last offseason that is looking worse than some of the ones we've seen from this team on the ice this season. It's time to see him where he's belonged all along - nowhere near the hockey operations of the Pittsburgh Penguins franchise.