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Mack: Five Biggest Influences On Penguins' Offseason Plans

Whose Vision For The Organization Will Win Out?

Chris Mack
June 20, 2019 - 2:30 am

Like news teams jumping in to the frame in the goofy back alley streetfight scene in the movie Anchorman, there is seemingly no end to the number of emerging influences on what could be a truly dramatic offseason for the Pittsburgh Penguins.

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Following General Manager Jim Rutherford's appearance on Cook & Joe earlier this week, the impulse from many - me included - was to consider just what the GM may actually be trying to do with his roster this offseason.

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Will Rutherford back up what he's said about acquiring depth forwards with skill and speed? Or is placating Head Coach Mike Sullivan by moving Phil Kessel still his #1 priority? If not, how important does an extension for Sullivan become in order to for him to maintain some sort of leverage over the poorly behaved triumvirate of Kessel, Evgeni Malkin, and Kris Letang? How would ownership react if the GM tried to make a point by moving one of those two franchise stalwarts, in 71 or 58?

And what the heck does the face of the franchise, Sidney Crosby, think of all of this?

With so many thoughts swirling and just hours until the 2019 NHL Draft - and less than two weeks until free agency opens up - it's probably best to step back and take a look at the most pivotal Penguins offseason in at least a decade through the lenses of the people with the most impact on what will actually happen this summer.

Let's start with Owners Ron Burkle & Mario Lemieux and CEO/Team President David Morehouse. All three of these gentlemen find great pleasure in two things: Cashing fat checks and riding down the Boulevard of the Allies of the backs of convertibles. For Lemieux, there's an extra layer: He understands and empathizes with the thought process of the superstar in the player vs. coach battle more than anyone else in the organization. 

Just ask Scotty Bowman.

There's no small number of people in town that think trading away high end talent is no way to go about competing for a sixth Stanley Cup in 30 seasons. Mario has to be near the top of that list. He must be willing to go along with a Kessel trade, given the paperwork was ready to be filed before Phil vetoed an impending deal to Minnesota. Moving Malkin or Letang, though? Two of the three current Penguins who were a part of the three Crosby Era championships?

I can't imagine Lemieux - and by extension, Burkle and Morehouse - are at all interested in dispatching with high end talent during what should be a yearly cycle of Cup contention.

That must make Phil Kessel, Kris Letang, & Evgeni Malkin feel better. Because if it were up to them, I imagine this offseason's fix would be real simple: "Get the coach off of our rear ends!"

Diagnosing the irresponsible trio's culpability in last season's failures isn't altogether difficult, especially when focusing on the team's 4-game sweep at the hands of the Islanders. Letang, in particular, made the overtime gaffe that led directly to a Game 1 loss, and the Penguins never recovered. Kessel & Malkin both had subpar regular seasons, at the very least by 5-on-5 measures, and in Malkin's case, especially when you consider the number of turnovers and exasperatingly dumb penalties he was responsible for.

Sullivan can't stand the sort of mental mistakes and/or indifference those three have made commonplace, but he also can't survive without their skill at his disposal. 

He also can't survive without a contract. His current one expires after the 2019-20 season, and if he goes into the campaign without an extension, there's no reason Kessel, Letang, & Malkin won't know full well that they've got the leverage over a possible lame duck coach if heads begin butting again. 

As for Head Coach Mike Sullivan, does he truly believe he can take a team of Crosby and the dancing Dominiks to the playoffs, let alone a Stanley Cup Final? After listening to Rutherford, you have to believe his coach's future job security lies somewhere between the arrival at one of those landmarks. Can he get there from here, though? In other words, can he either do it "his" way but with noticeably less elite talent at his disposal, or can he somehow exert any power or control over the three gentlemen mentioned in the last few paragraphs? For Sully, going into training camp without a new deal is tolerable. Starting the season without one is mildly irritating, and getting past the holidays without one would have to be downright disconcerting, as the above scenario could quickly play out if the Pens scuffle through regular season again. After all, this is the NHL, where a few perturbed but very prominent players could hasten an exit for just about any bench boss, even a two-time championship coach just two and a half years removed from back-to-back titles.

For Sidney Crosby, that's the end game every year, as it should be: A championship and a summer spent with Stanley. And he knows that's easier to accomplish with better players, even if they may be quirky and enigmatic. Crosby also knows it's not his job to figure out personnel. He's not LeBron James, auditioning for a future executive role while still playing. And once the personnel is accumulated, it's not his job to dictate Xs & Os. Can he exert some control over certain situations simply by virtue of the capital 'C' on his sweater? Absolutely. But when it comes down to it, Crosby simply wants the best possible shot at a ring every single season.

Which brings us back around to General Manager Jim Rutherford.

Rutherford has already reached the "no cares left to give" stage of his career. His brazen candidness with the media makes that plainly obvious, and his track record includes three Stanley Cups, one of which came in the - at that point - lukewarm-to-the-NHL market of Raleigh-Durham, NC. Rutherford was at the forefront of creating a tightknit, thriving (if small) hockey community in the Triangle.

He also helmed the descent into the Eastern Conference basement that resulted in nearly a decade of playoff-less hockey for the Carolina Hurricanes. It's hard to believe that could happen here... isn't it?

That same wanton disregard for diplomacy with the media seems to have extended to Rutherford's doling out of large, sometimes unduly long contracts, as well as his willingness to deal premium prospects and draft picks. 

With everyone rightfully focused on winning now, can Rutherford retool an aging roster on the fly while keeping it a contender? And given Lemieux's propensity to lean toward stars rather than coaches in disputes, what role will the Sullivan vs. Kessel/Letang/Malkin dynamic provide moving forward? How does the face of the game really feel about all of this turmoil?

And we didn't even address the issue of the goalie who could be a highly attractive target for a restricted free agent tender if he doesn't first receive a contract extension.

There's a lot to sort out this summer for the Penguins. Assuming it won't get messy is naive at best. At worst, it turns into a back alley brawl for philosophical control of an organization that should be focused on competing for a Stanley Cup, not with each other.