If there is one thing that can be certain about new Penguins general manager Jim Rutherford, it’s that the man isn’t afraid of change.
Rutherford has already made some serious changes in an attempt to make the Pittsburgh Penguins into the perennial Stanley Cup contenders that many thought they would be following their jubilant 2008-2009 campaign when they brought the Cup back to Pittsburgh.
But a funny thing happened, or more properly, a funny thing didn’t happen. The Penguins didn’t win the cup again; in fact, the Penguins didn’t even get a sniff of Lord Stanley’s fabled trophy. The closest that the team came was the humiliating conference finals sweep at the hands of the Boston Bruins back in 2013.
And so, here we are. With a new GM, and new coach, and potentially a new roster — a new roster that may or may not have the make up of a team poised to make a push at the Cup.
Firing Dan Bylsma was a move that Rutherford had to do. Former GM Ray Shero represented stability within the organization. He hired Bylsma during the team’s Stanley Cup season and stuck with him all the way until their eventual demise this summer.
Bylsma was by no means a bad coach, and Shero was certainly not a bad GM, but it had become clear that neither man was capable of getting the team another cup, at least not in the timely manner that Mario Lemieux and company were expecting.
When Rutherford fired Bylsma it was a move that made sense in a lot of sense considering that the Penguins were looking for a complete make over. That being said, I don’t think anyone expected the coaching search to last as long as it did, and I doubt that many casual fans knew who Mike Johnston was.
Johnston, who was the coach of the Portland Winterhawks in the Western Hockey League, is a coach that prides himself on his team’s ability to possess the puck and play an up-tempo offensive system. His offensive strategy and coaching philosophy fit the Penguins and their high-caliber offensive attack.
Johnston may not have been the most popular choice among fans, many were looking for the team to hire someone with NHL head coaching experience, but Johnston does provide the team with a fresh start and has a chance to wake up an offense that was almost non-existent in the playoffs last year.
James Neal was a guy that would have probably thrived in Johnston’s system, but he is off to Nashville in a trade that brought forwards Patric Hornqvist and Nick Spaling to the Penguins. Hornqvist and Spaling both represent the kind of players that the Penguins want, two-way players that have the ability to play on the special teams. The trade was more than likely a representation that Rutherford wants the Penguins to shed their top-heavy look and become a more balanced team that can roll out four lines on a consistent basis. The trade to get rid of Neal was the first step towards that goal.
Benefiting most from Rutherford’s roster shakeup are Brandon Sutter and Simon Despres. Their situations couldn’t be more different, but they both will benefit from the new regime.
Sutter is finally on the way to getting legitimate third line wingers. We got a glimpse of what Sutter was able to do in the playoffs, especially on the power play and with players that are on his skill level his numbers could skyrocket. That’s not to say that Sutter hasn’t been a productive player since coming over in the trade that sent Jordan Staal to Carolina, but he hasn’t exactly been complimented by a cast of good line mates. Expect Sutter to have a career year, whether it be with Hornqvist, Spalding, Bennett or someone that Rutherford picks up when free agency opens on July first.
Despres, on the other hand, may finally get a chance to prove why the Penguins selected him with the 30th pick back in 2009. Bylsma seemed to have a problem with the young defenseman and gave him a short leash. Despres is a player that is polarizing physically, standing at six-feet four-inches and 218 pounds, and brings a physical aspect onto the ice for the Penguins.
Despres has a chance at a fresh start with a new coaching staff and fits the mold for what the team is trying to do. Ushering in the crop of young defenseman should be a top priority for the team. The depth is there to fill the potential void of Brooks Orpik and Matt Niskanen and the young guys would free up cap-space as well.
Rutherford has his work cut out for him, and although change can be a long and tumultuous process, it is necessary if the team expects to win the Stanley Cup while its stars are still in their prime.