Grove: Management's Short Fuse May Not Benefit Penguins

Pens GM Rutherford threatened changes “in short order” if struggles continue

Bob Grove
November 08, 2018 - 10:05 am

© Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports

Related: Grove: Jamie Oleksiak A Really Good Fit For Penguins

PITTTSBURGH (93.7 The Fan) - Right now, goals are in short supply for the Penguins. They’ve got four in the last four games after a 2-1 loss in Washington Wednesday night, only one at even strength.

Scoring balance, defensive focus, goaltending consistency – all also missing in the wake of a five-game losing streak heading into Saturday’s home date with Phoenix.

To top it all off, the patience of management is also officially gone after GM Jim Rutherford unloaded on his team during his regular show on the Penguins Radio Network prior to Wednesday’s loss. We had seen signs of a lack of patience earlier from coach Mike Sullivan, but more on that later.

Among the Rutherford highlights:

  • “We’ve got some young guys that won a couple (Cups), then they get bigger contracts, and they kind of settle in,” Rutherford said. “They forget what got them to where they are today.” This seems like a thinly-veiled shot at Bryan Rust.
  • “Then we have some guys on the team who are working toward a contract next offseason. So they maybe change their game. They maybe think scoring more goals or getting more points is what’s going to get them more money. They get away from their game, what their role is.” Perhaps Riley Sheahan, who’s off to a dreadful start and committed the defensive error that led to the Caps’ late game-winning goal Wednesday?
  • “It’s almost like the guys come to the games and say, ‘Let’s just let the top guys do it.’ Let’s let Sid, Geno, Phil and Letang carry us. We’ll just get through the game and move on to the next game, forget about the work ethic it takes or forget about the role they play. But when those (stars) can’t get it done, whether they’re shut down or they’re not having a good game, that’s when we need those other guys to come in and contribute and help win games. We’re not getting it.” Take your pick: Sheahan, Rust, Daniel Sprong (healthy scratched again Wednesday) or Matt Cullen, who has had little impact through the first 14 games and who, it should be noted, was a surprising off-season addition by Rutherford.
  • “In the two years we won the Cup, we were playing at times the way we’re playing now. But between (Marc-Andre) Fleury and Murray, they were phenomenal in goal. They were hard to score against. That’s not what we’re getting now. We’re getting inconsistent goaltending.” That’s two-time Cup champion Matt Murray, who really has run hot and cold this season.

Rutherford also criticized the team’s work ethic and threatened changes “in short order” if the Penguins’ struggles continue.

There’s no disputing the accuracy of Rutherford’s comments, and this kind of frank talk from him is hardly unusual. But that doesn’t necessarily mean these comments are going to have the desired effect; this kind of public finger-pointing can also backfire.

The Penguins outplayed the Capitals Wednesday and put forth their best effort by far since the losing streak began, although they got nothing to show for it in the end. Truth is, if they play like that most nights, they’ll win most nights. But they didn’t learn about these comments until after the game, so we’ll see if the next few weeks look different.

Sullivan, meanwhile, has also had little time for underachievement since the season began. He’s been changing forward combinations and defensive pairings at a much higher rate than we’ve seen in previous seasons, culminating with two bold moves: separating Kris Letang and Brian Dumoulin for a home loss to New Jersey Monday and separating Phil Kessel and Evgeni Malkin for Wednesday’s loss. He also scrambled the first power play unit in Washington, but only for one penalty before restoring the unit that set a team record for efficiency last season.

No one expects a coach who’s unhappy with his team’s play to sit back and keep rolling out the same 20 guys and expecting different results. But the amount of mixing and matching at this point seems almost counter-productive if you want your players to just play the game without thinking. Playing beside different players frequently, or in the case of Derick Brassard, Jake Guentzel, Rust and Sheahan playing different forward positions from night to night, can often lead to errors as players learn the tendencies of new linemates or adjust to the demands of different positions.

Sullivan needs the competition for playing time among his players to fuel better play from all of them. That makes sense. But this kind of frequent shuffling really doesn’t lend itself to helping players reach the consistency they need to win roster battles or steady spots in the lineup.

The Penguins are 14 games into their schedule and, with a win Wednesday, would have been one point out of first place in the Metropolitan Division despite missing an important player in Justin Schultz now for 10 games. Are things going well? No. Has the pressure on them, here in the first week of November, increased? Absolutely.

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