If the Pittsburgh Penguins are struggling and in need of some changes, you can bet GM Jim Rutherford won’t be waiting until the trade deadline to do it.
With five straight losses prior to Saturday’s 4-0 win over the Arizona Coyotes, the Penguins fell out of a playoff spot. Granted it’s very early, but Rutherford has never been shy about looking for improvements well before the trade market kicks into high gear. And, judging by the way he called out his team last week, the 69-year-old GM may be getting ready to strike.
“Has this team been together too long? It’s something I always have to watch for,” Rutherford said on a recent local radio hit. “When do you have to make those changes? The players are doing everything they can to tell me now’s the time.”
Though the Penguins have the sixth-best offence on the season, averaging 3.40 goals per game, they’ve only scored 11 times in their past six games. The big guys in Evgeni Malkin (20 points), Sidney Crosby (17 points) and Phil Kessel (17 points) are pulling their weight, but the support scoring hasn’t been coming at a level the team expected.
Rutherford’s comments, according to Sportsnet’s Chris Johnston, set off trade talks and rumours around the Pens.
“What that’s done is kinda created a little bit of a market for the Penguins,” Johnston said on Hockey Night in Canada‘s Headlines segment. “They’ve received some calls. There’s been interest on Daniel Sprong, a player they are willing to move on from. As we look around the league and wonder where some trade activity may come from, it does appear Pittsburgh is the place. They’re not happy with how things have gone … they’re looking for some secondary scoring help behind their big dogs.”
You don’t have to look very far back to find the last time Rutherford made an early-season trade.
The Penguins weren’t even struggling when they started the 2017-18 season with a 5-3-1 record, but Rutherford knew he needed to add to his centre depth on the third line. So, on Oct. 21, he acquired Riley Sheahan from the Detroit Red Wings to play that role. Sheahan had only scored two goals the season prior, so it was a minor move to plug a hole and hold up as a bridge move until Rutherford acquired Derick Brassard near the trade deadline — but he saw a need and pounced on an opportunity to address it early.
In fact, less than two months later Rutherford was out in the media challenging his team again, saying he wasn’t ruling out the possibility of a “major trade” in the lead up to the Christmas roster freeze when the Penguins were struggling enough to be sitting outside of the playoff picture.
And though it didn’t qualify as a big trade, Jamie Oleksiak was acquired five days later and filled a third-pair role the rest of the season.
So Rutherford’s first move of the season could come early, but it may not qualify as a blockbuster transaction.
“Something that might make sense only to me is Anaheim’s another team that’s struggling,” Elliotte Friedman said on Headlines. “Rutherford and (Ducks GM) Bob Murray did a deal a couple years ago, Perron for Hagelin, I wonder if there’s a match there because they’ve done deals before.”
Who could be on the block on Pittsburgh? Here are a couple possibilities:
In May, Rutherford guaranteed Sprong would be on the Penguins’ roster this season, following a point-per-game output in the AHL. Sprong, a second-round pick in 2015, has a lot of creativity to his game and it can flash at points, but he’s been a disappointment thus far.
He is the exact kind of player an experienced Cup contender like the Penguins need — someone on a cheap, entry-level deal who can contribute offence at a fairly high level when it clicks. So far, though, Sprong has just four points — all assists — and a very limited amount of special-teams time. He’s been scratched the past two games.
“We hoped Sprong would be in the top nine,” Rutherford said on the radio last week. “He hasn’t jumped ahead of anybody on the right side so he’s playing on the fourth line. It’s not ideal.”
CARL HAGELIN/JAKE GUENTZEL
Sprong wasn’t the only player Rutherford targeted in his comments. Though he didn’t name these guys, the GM mentioned players on contract years who may have that on their mind.
“Maybe they change their game,” he said. “Maybe they think scoring more goals or getting more points is what’s going to get them more money. So they get away from their game, what their role is.”
This covers a few players: Carl Hagelin, Sheahan, and Matt Cullen are noteworthy UFAs-to-be and Jake Guentzel is on track to be an RFA this summer.
We’ll focus in on Hagelin here since he’s already making $4 million against the cap and, at 30 years old, you wonder what that extension may look like. Granted, he is still playing significant penalty-kill time and skates like the wind — both valuable skills — but his offence is not there. Not a big point producer already, Hagelin has only three in 15 games, which is on pace to be about half the 31 points he gathered in 2017-18.
And he’s been playing with Malkin.
“It’s almost like the guys come to the game and say, ‘Let’s just let the top guys do it. Let Sid and Geno and Phil and Letang carry us and we’ll just get through the game and move on to the next game,’ and forget about the work ethic it takes or forget about the role they play,” Rutherford said.
The GM could also be talking about Guentzel in this sense, though.
Recently moved off Crosby’s wing and down to the third line, Guentzel hasn’t scored a goal since Oct. 25 and none of his five 5-on-5 assists have been primary helpers. But he’s just 24 years old and, since the Penguins already traded away a young-ish winger in Conor Sheary (now 26) last summer, can they absorb another loss like that?
Another kind of player in Rutherford’s crosshairs were those who won a Cup with this team early in their careers, got paid on a contract extension, and are under-performing so far.
“At a young age, guys win Stanley Cups and a lot of guys go their whole career and they don’t even get close to it,” Rutherford said. “We’ve got some young guys that won a couple, then they get bigger contracts and then they kind of settle in. They forget what got them to where they are today.”
In the early part of the 2015-16 season the Penguins looked like they were heading off the rails. Then they hired Mike Sullivan and everything started to settle shortly after, as they went on to win the Stanley Cup.
Bryan Rust got his first permanent opportunity that season, getting into the lineup for good in January and staying there. His production and role grew in both of the two seasons that followed — getting to 38 points in 69 games last season — and was rewarded with a four-year extension in June for $14 million.
This season Rust has one goal and four points in 15 games and is playing with Crosby. Like Hagelin, he’s being used on the penalty kill and, like Guentzel, his impact at 5-on-5 is minimal, with one primary assist.