PITTSBURGH — There are words pasted on the wall of the northeast corner of the dressing room at the Pittsburgh Penguins’ practice facility, ones that encapsulate a championship mentality that’s been in place since Jim Rutherford took over as general manager of the team back in June of 2014.
They read, “Code of excellence,” and the words “passion,” “accountability,” “work ethic,” and “commitment” — which are written on the other walls of the room — outline the recipe that goes into adhering to that code.
This is what the Penguins are all about. This is where their path diverges from that of the Montreal Canadiens under general manager Marc Bergevin, because they set the bar at Stanley Cup or bust and do so year after year in defiance of the reality that the salary cap has levelled the playing field and parity has taken over. There is no managing expectations in Pittsburgh. The Penguins have no fear of disappointing anyone but themselves.
And yes, it’s acknowledged that they have Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin as cornerstone pieces, two of the most elite players the National Hockey League has ever seen and two players who are very much still in their prime.
But if there’s a reason this team has defied expectations and cobbled together the NHL’s fourth-best record this season despite Crosby missing more than half of their games, Malkin missing 13 of them and former 40-goal scorer Jake Guentzel missing 16 and counting (he’s not expected back before playoffs), it has much to do with what Jack Johnson explained on Thursday.
“I think it’s just what’s expected of us,” the 33-year-old defenceman said. “Regardless of who’s in the lineup, we’re expected to win.”
This isn’t just about depth for the Penguins, because there are many teams who arguably boast stronger depth but have crumbled with key players sidelined by injury; this is mostly about a standard that constantly demands more.
It is the standard set by owners Mario Lemieux and Ronald Burkle, the one president and CEO David Morehouse holds Rutherford to, and the one constantly reinforced to the players by head coach Mike Sullivan, his staff and the leadership group. It fuels this whole operation.
“When you come here, that’s just the way it is,” said Johnson, who signed a five-year, $16.25 million contract with Pittsburgh in the summer of 2018. “This team’s expected to play for the Stanley Cup and compete for it and that’s the only thing we’re after in here. Half the league makes the playoffs. If your goal isn’t to win the Stanley Cup every year, then what are you doing?
“I mean, you obviously have to make the playoffs. It’s not easy to make the playoffs. But if you’re not playing for the Cup, you’re wasting your time. And you have to genuinely believe you can win it, and every single guy in the room has to be believing in the same thing. If you get every guy believing, it’s a powerful thing.”
The thing is, that belief has to initially come from outside of the room first. It has to come from the front office and from the top down, and the team has to be managed with that belief as its guiding principle.
It’s in that vein that Rutherford made one of the biggest trades of the season just days ago — acquiring Jason Zucker from the Minnesota Wild for a conditional first-round pick, defence prospect Calen Addison and 25-year-old Alex Galchenyuk. He paid a big price for a scoring forward, and he took on a contract that runs through 2023 and could complicate things from a salary cap perspective for the team down the road.
But it’s about the here and now for the Penguins, and it’s this kind of move Sullivan and the players have grown accustomed to since the recently inducted Hall of Fame GM touched down in Pittsburgh.
Rutherford’s commitment to that ethos of constantly going for it, with support from the owners, drives the commitment of everyone else in the organization.
“Our players know that we’re trying to win, and everybody here understands that that’s the expectation,” said Sullivan.
“We talk almost daily about how we’re going to try to get better and sometimes it’s within the group itself, with what [we] have, and sometimes it’s through a trade like Jim made the other day to acquire Jason,” he continued. “But we’re constantly asking [those] question[s] amongst ourselves — ‘How do we improve? How do we get better? How do we push the standard so that we can put this team in the best possible position to contend?’”
Because you don’t become great by aiming for just good.
And if you aim for greatness and only end up being good, that’s a lot more acceptable than aiming for good and falling short of that modest goal, like the Canadiens are on their way to doing for a third straight season and a fourth time in five years.
It’s a given that the pressure from the fan base in Pittsburgh isn’t quite what it is in hockey-mad Montreal, but what the Penguins put on themselves consistently propels them to greater heights.
“It’s something that can help you or hurt you, but we use it to motivate us and challenge us and we have guys who look at it the right way,” says Crosby. “So, I think it takes guys having the right mentality as a group and individually trying to get the best of each other and that’s what we’ve continued to try to do throughout the year here.”
It’s what the Penguins seem to do every year and what the Canadiens did for decades in running the winningest franchise in NHL history.
It’s time for this Montreal team to look to the Penguins for inspiration. It’s not good enough to just re-tool the roster, it’s time for a shift in the way they think of themselves and the way they approach each season with a ‘Let’s make the playoffs and see what happens’ outlook.
It’s what the players need in order to push themselves beyond their limitations.
“This is a great organization and a great team, and we’re expected to win every year,” said Patric Hornqvist, who’s been with the Penguins since the 2014-15 season. “It’s the best environment you can be in as a player if you want to get more out of yourself.”