“We feel it is time to move our franchise in a new direction,” Lemieux and Burkle said. “We share the disappointment of our fans that we have not had success in the playoffs over the past five seasons. We believe that new leadership in the general manager’s office will bring a new approach and new energy, and help us return to championship form.”
-Mario Lemieux and Ron Burkle
It's been a little less than a year since the Penguins blew a 3-1 series lead against the New York Rangers and watched the organizational structure blow up as a result. Gone were Ray Shero and Dan Bylsma, the General Manager and Head Coach who routinely led the team to the top of the league in the regular season only to routinely see them bow out early in the postseason, often times in alarming fashion. Hired in their place to push the team back over the top into the championship discussion were Jim Rutherford, the man who oversaw the absolute disaster that has been the Whalers/Hurricanes franchise, and Mike Johnston, a rookie NHL head coach plucked from the junior ranks, albeit one with extensive experience behind an NHL bench as an assistant.
It's true that you cannot win championships during the regular season, as Shero and Bylsma found out the previous five years, but for the first time in years this Pittsburgh Penguins team is lucky that's not the case. The Pens currently have the 6th most points in the Eastern Conference, which would be their lowest regular season finish since their 8 year playoff streak began. They're on pace for 101 points this season - a number they've only finished below once the previous eight years. Incidentally that was the season they won the Stanley Cup, but it's safe to say the team was much more successful leading up to the postseason that year than they've been currently. Right now they're 17th in the league in scoring with 2.69 G/GP - the league ranking hasn't been this bad since Michel Therrien and Eddie Olczyk split the coaching duties in 2005-06. They haven't scored this few goals per game since being one of the worst teams in the league in the seasons before the lockout. The power play (19.8%) has seen a significant drop off from the cumulative 23.9% posted over the past two seasons. Think about what these numbers could've looked like if not for an offensive explosion the first month of the season.
Rutherford's first order of business after taking over? Trading arguably the team's best natural goal scorer for a net front presence and a soon to become overpaid bottom six player. But that trade was made for the playoffs, not the regular season.
It's not all doom and gloom though. Marc-Andre Fleury is having a career season. Kris Letang has solidified himself as one of the best defensemen in the league and should receive serious consideration for the Norris Trophy. Sidney Crosby is leading the scoring race, and he and Evgeni Malkin are posting the top two points/gm averages in the entire league. All four of those players are squarely in their primes, and four are performing at or near the best in the league. Whether it's Corsi or Fenwick, score adjusted or not, percentages or shot suppression, the team is solid possession-wise and ranks around the 6-10 mark in the league in most categories after being a below average possession team since trading Jordan Staal to Carolina.
So, what exactly is there to make of this team? A month ago this team walked into California, played the Ducks and Kings on back to back nights, and walked away with 4 points. Since then they've gone 4-6-2 playing mostly teams with little to play for. The Pens have played just 3 teams currently in the playoffs in those twelve games - they won none of those games, managing only a single point. Instead of using a weak schedule to ramp up for the playoffs, the Pens are limping towards the finish line.
“I feel the team we have now has as good a chance (to win the Stanley Cup) as any other team”
-Jim Rutherford; February 25, 2015
And the main problem is that the Pittsburgh Penguins haven't been a very good hockey team this season, injuries aside. Against the rest of the Eastern Conference teams currently in the playoffs, the ones they'd need to get past to get to the Stanley Cup, the Pens have gone 8-11-5. One of the main reasons for getting rid of Shero was the rate at which he was trading away draft picks, but at least he was trying to add to teams that were at the top of the league. Rutherford has already traded away a 1st, 2nd, and 4th round pick - granted, the 1st round pick isn't as much of a wasted asset if the team re-signs David Perron but it's going to be a tight salary cap situation moving forward and the failure to re-up his contract will make that trade an absolute disaster. The Simon Despres for Ben Lovejoy swap is one a team makes to push them over the top. It's a complete and total waste of an asset if you're looking for a marginal improvement for a season where a marginal improvement doesn't get you close to the top. Jim Rutherford is continuing to piss assets down the drain, just like his predecessor, but unlike his predecessor it's questionable whether he's capable of accurately assessing where his team is. This is a guy who spent 20 years sheltered in the Hartford and Carolina markets while his teams languished near the bottom of the league. He made the playoffs in just 5 of 20 seasons with the Whalers/Hurricanes franchise. He's still the awful choice he was last offseason. He has the twenty years of experience, but Nickleback has been putting out albums since 1996; longevity doesn't mean you're good at what you do.
Without Kris Letang and Christian Ehrhoff in the lineup, the Penguins are going to have a near impossible task of advancing deep into the playoffs; it'd still be a difficult test even with a healthy roster.
“What ownership wants here is a complete change in direction"