Rutherford, Johnston eager to help Penguins rebound
After another disappointing Stanley Cup Playoffs, the Pittsburgh Penguins have been taken in a different direction featuring new leadership and a retooled roster.
The Penguins will set out to prove the changes were worth the risk.
Pittsburgh was eliminated in the Eastern Conference Second Round despite a 3-1 series lead against the New York Rangers heading back to Consol Energy Center for Game 5. The Penguins scored one goal in each of the following three games and were outscored by seven.
In five years since winning the 2009 Stanley Cup, the Penguins have yet to return to the Stanley Cup Final. The dissatisfaction with postseason futility led Pittsburgh to make notable changes throughout the organization.
General manager Ray Shero was fired May 16, followed by coach Dan Bylsma on June 6. New general manager Jim Rutherford, who was hired the same day Bylsma was let go, and coach Mike Johnston replaced the duo that played a key role in establishing Pittsburgh as one of the preeminent franchises in recent years.
One of Johnston's first acts as Penguins coach was to reach out to forward Sidney Crosby, who decided against having offseason surgery on an injured wrist.
"We didn't talk a lot about the injury," Johnston said. "We talked more about how he's feeling, sort of the situation with the team, how the team was, just different dynamics. It's a chance to interact with him and get a feel for where he's at, and I knew him a little bit before but I never really sat down and talked to him extensively like that."
Rutherford didn't take long to make his mark on the team, firing Bylsma and hiring Johnston as well as trading forward James Neal during the first round of the 2014 NHL Draft to the Nashville Predators in exchange for forwards Patrick Hornqvist and Nick Spaling. Neal, a former 40-goal scorer, was a pillar on Pittsburgh's second line next to forward Evgeni Malkin.
But Neal was criticized for making questionable decisions on the ice, which played a factor in him being traded, Rutherford said. Hornqvist will most likely take the place of Neal or forward Jussi Jokinen, who signed with the Florida Panthers during free agency, next to Malkin.
Hornqvist could benefit from playing next to Malkin in much the same way Neal did after being traded to Pittsburgh from the Dallas Stars during the 2010-11 season.
Defenseman Matt Niskanen, who was also involved in that 2010-11 trade, signed with the Washington Capitals during free agency along with defenseman Brooks Orpik. A hole was left in the Penguins' defensive corps, which was partially filled by the signing of defenseman Christian Ehrhoff.
The expected pairings of defensemen Kris Letang and Paul Martin, and defensemen Olli Maatta and Ehrhoff seem set, but there remains opportunity for a young player to make a mark on Pittsburgh's defense.
Defenseman Simon Despres could receive another chance to live up to his potential under a new regime. Defensemen Brian Dumoulin, who has played in six NHL games, and Derrick Pouliot, who is recovering from offseason shoulder surgery, could also earn a spot on the opening-night roster.
"It's always an opportunity," Dumoulin said. "Even last year and coming into this year, coming into training camp, I just want to prove to them that hopefully I can make that team, and I'm going to do everything from now until that point to put myself in the best position to have an opportunity. So I'm looking forward going into this training camp."
The Penguins will enter the season looking vaguely familiar to the team they were a year ago. They are still headlined by Crosby, Malkin, Letang and goalie Marc-Andre Fleury. That core remains intact.
But not much else is the same, and that's led to more uncertainty surrounding Pittsburgh than there has been in several seasons.
Johnston traveled to Russia to meet with Malkin in addition to his meeting with Crosby. His intention has been to meet with several players in order to eliminate some of that uncertainty.
"That's what I really want to do with our players over the course of the summer, as many as I can, get to meet with personally," Johnston said. "It's a matter of getting to know their personality, getting to know a little bit about their background so that when it comes to training camp, you're involved with so many people at one time that you don't have the chance to spend 1-on-1 time with these guys and everything goes really quick.
"And I want to make sure before training camp that I get a chance to connect with all the guys."
2013-14 record: 51-24-7, 109 points, 1st in Metropolitan Division, 2nd in Eastern Conference
2014 Stanley Cup Playoffs: Lost to New York Rangers in seven games in second round
Pending Free Agents: G Tomas Vokoun (UFA)
Top 2014 NHL Draft Pick: F Kasperi Kapanen (No. 22)
Author: Wes Crosby | NHL.com Correspondent