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Mack: Rutherford's Shake-Up Better Wake Up Penguins

GM should have players' attention with move after slow start

Chris Mack
November 15, 2018 - 6:03 am

After losing six of their last seven and not looking like themselves at any point this season other than their four-game, late-October, Canadian road swing, it was on the Pittsburgh Penguins General Manager Jim Rutherford to finally shake things up and drop a flashbang into his team's psyche. The time had come to remind them that at any point, they could be the next out the door.   

Just one-fifth of the way into what is a marathon slog of a regular season that has about as much meaning as a 99-cent gas station greeting card, Rutherford had seen enough. With the backing of ownership, who'd just announced a three-year contract extension for the three-time Stanley Cup Champion, "Trader Jim," as he's known in some circles, pulled off not just a hockey trade, but a move to get his veteran-laden, yet underachieving, team's attention.

Related: Rutherford Shakes Up Penguins Room with Hagelin Trade

Out goes Carl Hagelin, who twice hoisted the Stanley Cup as a Penguin, and whose standing in the room was immaculate as such, being a core piece of the fourth and fifth championship teams in franchise history.

In comes Tanner Pearson, a Stanley Cup champ himself with the Kings in 2014, but without a goal in his first 17 games this season after tallying 24 two years ago.

Out goes a left wing with blazing speed and penalty kill ability.

In comes another left wing with some speed and experience on special teams.

Out goes a 30-year old on a $4 million expiring contract.

In comes a 26-year old on a $3.75 million annual deal that runs two more seasons after 2018-19.

On the surface, it's a good hockey trade by Rutherford, exchanging an aging player who's struggling for, well, a younger player who may benefit from a change of scenery. In nothing else, it freshens up the depth lines on the second oldest team in the NHL.

There's a not-so-subtle message in dealing out "Haggy" though, as his former teammates knew him: Keep scuffling and struggling, and you could be next.

Short of the nucleus of Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin, Phil Kessel, Kris Letang, and Matt Murray, no one is safe.

And that's exactly the feeling Rutherford wanted to create on a roster that, let's be honest, had very little reason to start this campaign with any sense of urgency.

They've won two of the last three Cups, they know that the regular season is essentially just a warm-up for the games that really matter in the spring, and the majority of them have enough experience under their belts that a sleepy stretch to start the season can be recovered from.

It may be time for that prevailing wisdom about slow starts to change however, just as quickly as the league is changing around what was once the fastest team in the game.

The Penguins are no longer the premier purveyors of speed in the league. They no longer blow by other teams in the neutral zone, they no longer come from behind the way they used to, they no longer show the same resilience on a night-by-night basis that they used to in their younger years.

Very quickly, and very painfully, they may learn that the same is true regarding the standings and the squandering of early season points. 

That - besides adding a younger, slightly cheaper version of Hagelin - is what Rutherford is trying to undoubtedly impress upon the team that will now be under his guidance for at least the next three years. The sense of entitlement and the expectation that the doldrums will just naturally slough away when the calendar turns to 2019 could be the downfall of a team with enough talent on their top two lines alone to challenge for the Stanley Cup again. 

If Rutherford's shake-up doesn't ultimately prove to also be a wake-up, then there will be more moves. And this early season slump could portend of similar troubles that have befallen teams in Detroit, in Chicago, and in Los Angeles over the past few years.

That's a harsh reality that still seems off in the distance due to the superb talents of Crosby, Malkin, et al, but it's one that fans, and more importantly the players, need to face.

Or they could be the next one out the door.