When the Penguins were ushered out of the Toronto bubble in four games last August – technically not even making the playoffs as the Montreal Canadiens bounced them in the qualifying round – GM Jim Rutherford spoke candidly of his disappointment with how his team had “fizzled out” over the past two seasons. “Based on that, I’m looking at everything now,” he said.
Less than 24 hours after that, Rutherford backed up his words with some big actions. Head coach Mike Sullivan’s job remained intact, but his top three assistants – Jacques Martin, Mark Recchi and Sergei Gonchar – were gone, with the Penguins declining to renew their contracts.
“We are in the process of conducting a review of our organization because we have underperformed in the playoffs the last few years,” Rutherford said. “We just thought we needed to change the dynamic. We have very high standards here in Pittsburgh, and we want to continue competing for Stanley Cups. The message to our fans is that ‘We are not rebuilding, we’re re-tooling.’”
The retooling didn’t stop with the coaching staff, of course, and it’s been significant.
You say goodbye…
Former No. 1 goaltender Matt Murray, who found himself in more of a 1A-1B situation with the emergence of Tristan Jarry last season, was traded to Ottawa in October. The writing was increasingly on the wall that Murray would be the goalie moved as both were due new contracts this year; still, the end of Murray’s Penguins career came much sooner than one might have envisioned when he was chosen over Marc-Andre Fleury after the 2017 Stanley Cup run.
It’s also the culmination of a fascinating arc for Jarry, who was drafted in 2013 as Fleury’s heir apparent, fell behind Murray on the organizational depth chart, was unsuccessfully dangled in trade talks in 2019, stuck with the big club over backup Casey DeSmith solely due to contract considerations, then proceeded to become an NHL All-Star in 2020. The Penguins believe he’s ready to take the next step.
“We’re playing really good rival teams” in the realigned East division, Rutherford said, which for 2021 includes Pittsburgh, Boston, Buffalo, New Jersey, the New York Islanders and Rangers, Philadelphia and Washington. “The intensity of these games will be like playoff games, and goaltending’s going to be an important part in a shortened [56-game] season because there’s not a lot of margin for error.”
Winger Patric Hornqvist, as strong a presence as there’s been in front of the Penguins’ net and in their dressing room since the 2016 and 2017 Stanley Cup seasons, was traded to the Florida Panthers. Defenseman Justin Schultz, another key part of those Cups, wasn’t offered a new contract and signed with the Washington Capitals.
The Penguins also subtracted a couple of the more maligned players on their roster – center Nick Bjugstad (traded to Minnesota), who appeared in only 45 games in two seasons with Pittsburgh due to injuries – and defenseman Jack Johnson (signed by New York Rangers) who, despite frequent votes of confidence from the organization, was bought out just two years into the five-year, $16.25 deal they signed him to in 2018.
Respected veteran Patrick Marleau’s championship hopes with his boyhood favorite club didn’t work out, and he headed back to San Jose on a one-year deal. Forwards Conor Sheary (Washington) and Dominik Simon (Calgary) have also moved on.
On the hockey operations side, assistant GM Jason Karmanos is out, replaced by Patrik Allvin. Allvin has been with the club for 15 years, most recently as director of amateur scouting.
…and I say hello
Sliding into the coaching staff vacancies are familiar faces Todd Reirden, who will work with the defense and power play, and Mike Vellucci, with responsibility for the forwards and the penalty kill.
Reirden, a well-regarded Penguins assistant from 2010 to 2014, has been with the Washington Capitals since then, including the last two seasons as head coach. Vellucci was GM and head coach for the Penguins’ AHL affiliate in Wilkes-Barre/Scranton, coming to them from the Carolina Hurricanes organization, where he led the AHL Charlotte Checkers to the Calder Cup in 2019.
And back on the hockey ops side, former defenseman Trevor Daley is back in the organization as a hockey operations advisor.
Rutherford’s biggest acquisition up front was also a familiar face as Kasperi Kapanen, their former first-round selection in 2014 who went to Toronto in the Phil Kessel trade, returned in a deal headlined by Pittsburgh’s 2020 first-round pick. The Penguins also added forward depth in Mark Jankowski, who has the inside track on the third-line center role the Penguins have struggled to fill; Colton Sceviour, who’s likely to see time on the penalty kill; and Evan Rodrigues, who they acquired last season, dealt to Toronto as part of the Kapanen deal, then reacquired in free agency,
“When you look at the depth of our team and the bottom six forwards, I think it’s going to be a really competitive situation,” Sullivan said. “I think that’s what keeps us all at our best. We’ve always been strong believers in that internal competitive push.”
On the blue line, with Schultz and Johnson gone, the Penguins will have a new third pairing with the addition of Mike Matheson from the Hornqvist trade and Cody Ceci as a free agent from Toronto. They’re looking to Matheson to fill some of Schultz’s offensive contributions and power play time, and Ceci, who led the Maple Leafs in shorthanded minutes per game, to play a steady, defensive role.
Also returning and making a case for playing time are Juuso Riikola, re-signed to a two year deal; reliable veteran Chad Ruwedel; and depth D Zach Trotman; 21-year-old prospect Pierre-Olivier Joseph also stands a good chance to crack the NHL lineup at some point this season.
“It’s always exciting when you make changes, but you’re a little nervous, too, because you don’t know exactly how it’s going to play out,” Rutherford said. “We have some new guys coming in that have had good years and they’re good players; some coming off a little bit of off years for them. So it’ll be interesting to see how their game plays out. We have our fingers crossed they all get back to the level where they were at their best.
“It’s time to be excited, but time to see what we really have.”
Knocking on the door
As the NHL prepares to resume camps on Jan. 3 and the shortened 2020-21 season on Jan. 13, COVID-19 cases are spiking and teams must prepare for the possibility of having players sidelined throughout the season. In addition to their 23-man roster, the Penguins will carry a taxi squad of 4-6 players who will be eligible to practice and travel with the team, and must be called up by 5 p.m. on game day in order to play.
One of those will be a goalie, and newly acquired Maxime Lagace, who has six seasons of AHL experience and a handful of NHL games with the Vegas Golden Knights, is expected to fill that role. Other taxi squad candidates include forward Drew O’Connor, a highly regarded college forward the Penguins signed out of Dartmouth; Cam Lee, an offensive-minded defenseman who just finished his senior season at Western Michigan University; and Jordan Nolan, a veteran forward on a professional tryout who brings a big, physical presence and championship experience with the L.A. Kings.
There’s also an open spot on the Penguins’ difference-making fourth line with Brandon Tanev and Teddy Blueger, as forward Zach Aston-Reese will miss the first couple of months as he continues to recover from August shoulder surgery with a six-month timeline.
Anthony Angello, who stuck around with the big club for most of the second half of last season and earned a two-year contract extension, and Sam Lafferty, with a solid rookie season and standout camp ahead of last summer’s bubble session, are strong candidates for that spot.
“We have some prospects that are capable of being on the taxi squad, we have some guys here who are going to be knocking on the door to make the team, and we really like the free agents that we signed,” Rutherford said. “So we’re going to have a pretty competitive camp, and that’ll dictate who ultimately stays on the taxi squad.”
“We have an idea where we’d like to start as far as line combinations and defense pairs, and we’ll put these guys together and see how they perform and make decisions accordingly,” Sullivan said. “We’re excited about the group we’ve assembled here, and we’re looking forward to the opportunity to get on the ice with these guys.”
It’s an opportunity that Sullivan doesn’t take for granted, given the current state of the world.
“We’re no different than a lot of businesses at this particular point,” the head coach said. “This has been a difficult time for the world and, in our small world, it’s been no different. We love to play hockey; we love to be around the rink and get on the ice and compete.
“I think we’ve reflected on the experiences we’ve gone through this past season, some takeaways where we think we can improve as a group and grow together. We’ll present those to the team and then we’ll move forward. We’re looking forward to getting back to what we love to do.”