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Saturday, December 19, 2015

The Bumbling Fool by @BrianK_PI

By now, it's no secret that the changes made during the 2014 offseason are a complete, unquestionable disaster. The head coach hired in the midst of botched coaching search has been fired; the assistant coach forced upon the new hire's staff who prevented a more qualified candidate from taking the job has been retained by management for the new coach's staff. The new coach who, incidentally, received a contract extension and avoided the interim tag despite being already under contract by the organization. All of this just months after the team decided to retain a coach already on thin ice and not pursue Mike Babcock despite the perception that he'd be interested in coaching Sidney Crosby.

It's no surprise there have been issues with the coaching staff. Roster construction has been an issue for several years now. The messes on the bottom directly result from messes on the top. Shit flows downhill, afterall. Ron Burkle and Mario Lemieux effectively decided that they weren't interested in competing for championships when they decided to hand control of the franchise over to David Morehouse. Hell, just one season watching the mess brewing was enough for them to decide they didn't even want to own the team anymore. Morehouse, being grossly underqualified to head a franchise's hockey operations, chose a general manager any team with aspirations of competing for the Stanley Cup shouldn't have touched with a 10 foot pole if there was a 20 foot pole duct taped to the other end. And Jim Rutherford has been everything he could have been predicted to be. Jim Rutherford is a bumbling fool.

This isn't hindsight talking; this was something far too clear to from the moment Rutherford was hired. This is a man who guided the Hurricane/Whaler franchise to 5 playoff berths in 19 seasons as the general manager. He's won a Stanley Cup, but everything about the year screams fluke; the Hurricanes hadn't qualified for the playoffs in the two seasons previous to their championship year, and they didn't qualify for the two following seasons either. Only once has Rutherford overseen a team with over 100 points - that same Stanley Cup year. His second highest point total was the 99 points posted last year in Pittsburgh, a season that by Penguin standards was a disappointment. The current team is on pace for 87 points this year which would certainly end their 9 year playoff streak.

Make no mistake about it - this is Jim Rutherford's team now. While Ray Shero certainly had his shortcomings, he was at least capable of putting a competitive team on the ice. Not accounting for injury callups, the Penguins currently have 9 players on the roster leftover from the previous regime: Beau Bennett, Sidney Crosby, Chris Kunitz, Evgeni Malkin, Brian Dumoulin, Kris Letang, Olli Maatta, Marc-Andre Fleury, and Jeff Zatkoff. Dumoulin and Zatkoff have been promoted from the AHL during his tenure. Rutherford has given extensions to Bennett, Dumoulin, and Fleury. This team has GMJR's thumbprints all over it, and the issues that were present during Shero's time in Pittsburgh don't seem to have caused the new hire much worry.

Rutherford's first big move after being hired was to rush into trading James Neal in a trade that failed to maximize the value a player like Neal can bring back on the trade market. He's already traded one player brought back in the trade, Nick Spaling, in a move to bring back in some of the scoring he traded away. Toronto gave Phil Kessel away, yet the Penguins still haven't been able to figure out how to play to his strengths. The other player, Patric Hornqvist, has bounced between the top 6 and 3rd line and is rumored as being trade bait to upgrade the team's defense. Speaking of the defense, the Pens have watched a large number of top 4 defenders leave the team over the past two offseasons, but despite the clear and obvious problem the team has done little to nothing to address defense, even though the end of last season showed how difficult things could be if the team was thin on the blue line. In fact, they've actively harmed the defense by trading Simon Despres for Ben Lovejoy despite knowing that they were going to lose that trade. This, of course, was a part of the team sending out a large number of assets to try to improve their playoff positioning despite being closely grouped with several other teams at the time. The trading away of prospects and picks was a big criticism of Shero's regime, but at least he was trying to push teams over the top. Rutherford was trying to push his teams nearer to the top, but when you have a GM who knows he's going to be there short term and has no clue what the playoff race entails is it any wonder that he would waste assets without concern?

The latest example of this front office not having a clue what they're doing is in handling the Daniel Sprong situation. Sprong was sent back to the Charlottetown Islanders today after dressing in 18 games and being scratched for 13. Sprong flashed promise in the preseason and made the opening night roster, which was perfectly reasonable given that he could play up to 9 games in Pittsburgh without penalty. But when the team decided to play him in game 10, there needed to be some sort of plan on his future. Ideally Sprong would be playing in Wilkes-Barre this season, but due to the NHL-CHL player transfer agreement this isn't an option. If Sprong was going to be in Pittsburgh, he needed to be playing in games, and actually playing, not watching the second half glued to the bench. The argument while he was being scratched was that practicing with the NHL team was going to be better for his development than playing in the QMJHL, but if this was true, why would they send him back down? At the very least the team sent him back down before the 40 game mark, when he would have accrued a season towards unrestricted free agency.

The Sprong situation showed a front office that has no direction and questionable understanding of what they're doing, but honestly the incompetence is something they've displayed on more than a handful of occasions. When Jim Rutherford was hired, popular thought wondered how long it would take him to drive the Pittsburgh Penguins franchise into the ground. Surprisingly (or not, depending on your level of pessimism), it's a year and a half in and the question is whether they're going to start digging lower. Jim Rutherford was an awful hire by an incompetent executive, and make no mistake about it, he's a bumbling fool that needs to be sent packing so someone competent can take the reigns and try to salvage the remainder of Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin's prime years.

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