Penguins to ‘move forward’ with core, but ‘changes need to be made’

Pittsburgh Penguins centre Sidney Crosby (87), centre Evgeni Malkin (71) and defenceman Kris Letang (58) react after losing to the Montreal Canadiens in NHL Eastern Conference Stanley Cup playoff action in Toronto on Friday, August 7, 2020. (Frank Gunn/CP)

During the Sidney Crosby-era, success for the Pittsburgh Penguins has not been measured by regular-season wins and losses, but by Stanley Cup banners. Anything less is a disappointment — and an opportunity for introspection.

In the wake of Pittsburgh’s failure to even make the 2020 playoffs, falling 3-1 in their best-of-five qualifying series at the hands of the Montreal Canadiens, Penguins general manager Jim Rutherford has been given an extended break to take stock of what went wrong and, crucially, what must change to ensure it goes right next season.

“I plan to move forward with the core,” Rutherford told reporters on Tuesday. “These are good players. They still have good hockey left in them. I always have to say, if some amazing trade comes along, you have to look at it, but I will not actively be looking at trying to trade our core players.”

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Though Rutherford’s stated intention is not to actively shop big-name players, the outcome to the season — and especially the way that outcome transpired — is still cause for concern.

Pittsburgh entered its series against Montreal as heavy favourites, boasting both the experience and all-world level talent that should have made for a straightforward path to the playoffs. Instead, they unravelled without even forcing the series to a fifth, winner-take-all showdown.

“It was so disappointing in Game 4 to see where we’re at,” Rutherford said. “You’re waiting for the desperation from the drop of the puck and it didn’t come in the first period. It didn’t come in the second period. And it was even worse in the third period. There’s something wrong if you don’t have that drive to win in that point in time to win the series.

“I don’t know, did some of the players feel that they didn’t want to put in the extra work and stay in the bubble longer and prefer to be with their families? Nobody knows the answer to all those things. But it’s very disappointing and changes need to be made.

“I think going younger — where guys are eager to prove themselves to get to a certain point in their career — but doing it cautiously so we can transition on the fly and still be a contending team.”

The disappointment has not shifted Rutherford’s expectations of the Penguins, and he made clear that ownership shares that view. Pittsburgh intends to remain in win-now mode. The decisions he’ll have to make to try to force that window open a little longer are barreling toward him in the form of Tristan Jarry and Matt Murray’s contractual situations.

Both Jarry and Murray are slated to become restricted free agents this off-season. Murray, who helped the team win back-to-back Stanley Cups in 2016 and 2017, is in the final season of a three-year, $11.25-million contract, while Jarry earned $675,000 this season — the final of a two-year deal signed in 2018.

“It’s going to be difficult to keep both,” Rutherford said. “Everybody understands that given the cap. My assessment of their year is Tristan had an exceptionally good first half, made the all-star team. And then Matt was the better goalie in the second half. And my assessment of our goaltending in the playoffs (was that) our goalies were good.

“I can’t point the finger at the goalies.”

But no championship window stays open forever. Rutherford knows that, too. A one-off early exit — especially in light of the unique circumstances surrounding this pandemic-delayed season — would perhaps be easier to write-off. That isn’t the case for the Penguins.

“(Being eliminated early has) happened two years in a row,” Rutherford said. “If it only happened this year, we’d say it’s an oddity — it was because this was a team that couldn’t adjust to playing in August — and all those things, you can make all the excuses you want.

“But you can’t make those excuses when it happens two years in a row.”

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