Sunday, April 24, 2016

Series clincher has GM Rutherford's fingerprints all over it

  • By Chris Mueller Special to The Times
April 23, 2016

PITTSBURGH, PA - APRIL 23: Bryan Rust #17 of the Pittsburgh Penguins celebrates his second period goal with Trevor Daley #6 in Game Five of the Eastern Conference First Round against the New York Rangers during the 2016 NHL Stanley Cup Playoffs at Consol Energy Center on April 23, 2016 in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. (Photo by Justin K. Aller/Getty Images)

The Penguins’ clinching victory — exorcism, really — over Henrik Lundqvist and the Rangers was as emphatic a performance as they are capable of giving. It embodied everything they have become under Mike Sullivan; relentless, highly skilled, and ruthlessly efficient. Their speed, their youth, their tenacity was on display throughout.
More than anything, though, it was Jim Rutherford’s win. It was one game that put on full display all the work he has done to transform the Penguins’ roster from a slower, underachieving group into one that appears fully capable of making a run to the Stanley Cup.
Rutherford’s prints were everywhere — in Carl Hagelin’s early goal to tie the game up, and Phil Kessel’s goal to even the score when New York had reclaimed the lead. His imprint on the proceedings was only further magnified when Trevor Daley—somehow acquired for merely the cost of a broken-down Rob Scuderi — made a beautiful feed to Bryan Rust for a go-ahead goal. Finally, his most under the radar acquisition, the ageless Matt Cullen, scored what proved to be the game-winning goal in what ended up a 6-3 triumph.
When any analysis of this team is undertaken, it must start with Rutherford, both good and bad. It was Rutherford who hired Mike Johnston, an uninspiring head coach who neutered the skill sets of his best players and had the Pens playing a style of game that was completely antithetical to their identity as a franchise.
It was Rutherford who engineered the David Perron trade, which was borderline disastrous, as Perron never fit with the Penguins and didn’t produce during his time with the team. It was Rutherford who signed Sergei Plotnikov, who was traded to Arizona after a distinguished Pittsburgh career that saw him score precisely zero goals.
Those are the major negative moves of his tenure, to go along with roster mismanagement last year that led to the Penguins, clinging to their playoff lives down the stretch in the regular season, only being able to dress five defensemen.
However, Rutherford’s decisions this year have been nothing short of spectacular. He could have fired Johnston earlier but did so early enough that Sullivan, his replacement, got the Penguins all the way from out of the playoffs into second in the Metropolitan Division.
He flipped Scuderi for Daley, a move that could be mentioned every day and still seem improbable. He traded Perron for Carl Hagelin, who has single-handedly made the Penguins a fast team. Hagelin has been the kind of pesky, difficult-to-play-against forward that the Pens haven’t had in previous seasons. In fact, he was exactly the kind of player they didn’t have against the Rangers the previous two seasons — because he was on New York’s roster.
His free agent signings have played out just as well. Cullen has been nothing short of a revelation, scoring 16 goals during the regular season while providing a steady, veteran hand. Rutherford took a risk signing Eric Fehr while Fehr was injured and has been richly rewarded, as Fehr has been the kind of reliable, steady bottom-six player necessary to contend for a championship. Nick Bonino and Phil Kessel, both picked up in off-season trades, have excelled on a line with Hagelin, a pairing born out of necessity that turned fantastic.
Kessel, whose acquisition was the definition of a blockbuster, was criticized for much of the year, but his play has picked up at just the right time. He had three goals and three assists in the five first-round games.
It was thought that the Penguins’ relative lack of space under the salary cap would hamstring a truly significant roster overhaul. Rutherford has disproved that notion.
Rutherford’s mission was to win right away with a team whose owners felt it was still poised to win right away. Many felt that that was going to be a difficult thing to do, if not impossible. And sure, the Penguins still may not win the Stanley Cup, or even the Eastern Conference, or the next round.
They may well do all of those things, however.
No team, save perhaps the San Jose Sharks, has looked more impressive through one round of the playoffs. The Penguins wiped out their postseason nemesis, all without their franchise goalie. They had two netminders win their postseason debuts. They dominated with relative ease after an uneven start. Would you bet against them? I sure wouldn’t.
Give the players and the coach most of the credit for this franchise’s complete turnaround, but don’t forget the general manager. The Penguins wouldn’t be the fearsome juggernaut they’re starting to resemble without a lot of shrewd work from Jim Rutherford.

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