It hasn’t even been a month since Jim Rutherford accepted the Pittsburgh Penguins’ general managing duties, but this is the right time of year to make a big impact quickly.
After turning over the coaching staff – culminating with his hiring of Mike Johnston to run the bench – Rutherford has certainly made his mark on the the franchise in less than four weeks.
Starting with the coaching change, Rutherford raved about Johnston’s ability to adjust during games and his preferred style of play, namely an up-tempo game that emphasizes puck possession.
Dan Bylsma‘s teams certainly played fast, but they were also rigid and erred on the side of dump-and-chase tactics. I’m guessing Johnston would prefer the Penguins not give up the puck that eagerly, although they may be rather chameleon-like in terms of strategy.
At the highest level of the sport, in the biggest games, it’s about embracing pragmatism. Bylsma was a slave to his own dogma in difficult moments, which prevented the Penguins from making the most of their postseason opportunities. Johnston said giving players options was one of his keys to success while coaching the dominant Portland team in the Western Hockey League.
Rutherford went about giving his Johnston some personnel options almost immediately, trading high-scoring winger James Neal to Nashville for forwards Patric Hornqvist and Nick Spaling prior to last week’s NHL Draft. That deal has struck some as change for change’s sake, but it does augment the Penguins’ forward depth, which was a major issue last season.
Also, Hornqvist has had good success in Nashville despite usually being the best offensive player on his line. That won’t be the case in Pittsburgh, where he will likely be teamed with either Sidney Crosby or Evgeni Malkin. Neal saw his production jump after arriving from Dallas, and Hornqvist can reasonably expect a boost as well.
The draft was an eye-opener, too, with Rutherford nabbing a European forward – Finnish product Kasperi Kapanen – as his first selection while in charge of the Penguins. Former GM Ray Shero wasn’t exactly hot for Euros during his Pittsburgh tenure, although grabbing Finland’s Olli Maatta in the first round two years ago was a notable deviation from North American-heavy draft classes.
Rutherford didn’t take any more Europeans at the draft, but he turned back to the Old World for his first significant free-agent signing. 31-year-old German defenseman Christian Ehrhoff was one of the most coveted players as NHL free agency began Tuesday, and he decided to accept Pittsburgh’s one-year contract offer that will pay him $4 million.
Ehrhoff, who should get top-four minutes and man the Pens’ top power-play unit, likely decided to take the short-term deal because he will be receiving buyout payments from the Sabres for the next few years. He’ll gun for a title in 2014-15 as he suits up for his fourth NHL team.
German could be the Penguins’ second language next year, as goalie Thomas Greiss and depth forward Marcel Goc will join fellow countryman Ehrhoff on the NHL roster. Both signed one-year deals Tuesday, with Greiss coming over from Arizona and Goc re-upping with the team that traded for him this March.
Add free-agent signees Blake Comeau and Steve Downie to the German trio, and the Penguins’ training camp roster is getting closer to finalization. Rutherford still has to sign restricted free agents Brandon Sutter, Simon Despres and Spaling, but chances are good that no other NHL club attempts to poach one of them.
As evidenced by Comeau and Downie, Rutherford isn’t focusing on just skill with his roster revamp. Rather, he’s attempting to improve the team’s depth with additions of all varieties. While Comeau and Downie each have 20-goal seasons to their names, they’re more known for physical play, which can aid greatly in puck possession when employed prudently.
Thus, if there’s one theme about the changes the Penguins have made since Rutherford’s arrival, it’s versatility. If it goes according to plan, when the 2014-15 team is faced with an obstacle, they won’t bang their heads against it – they’ll find the best way around it.