Pittsburgh’s firing of Mike Johnston as head coach of the Penguins is the latest half-measure taken by the epitome of managerial mediocrity general manager Jim Rutherford. The blow was not surprising. Rutherford and Johnston had been in conflict since the Penguins had gone 2-2-3 in their last seven games and 6-6-3 in their last 15. Johnston was the head coach and Rutherford the general manager and so Rutherford did his best to transfer blame onto Johnston instead of doing what would truly be beneficial for the Penguins franchise and resigning himself.
Last season I predicted the decline and fall of the Pittsburgh Penguins franchise and today I still stand by that prediction. The Penguins have been dogged with inconsistency all season long and they’re still four weeks away from the halfway point. They went 0-3-0 right out the gate. Went on a decent spurt that offered a sense of false hope before settling into a .500% level of play that leaves Penguin fans and hockey purists alike shaking their heads at how quickly the mighty have fallen.
Pittsburgh has the fourth worst offense in the NHL despite having Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin, and Phil Kessel. They rank 26th in power-play offense and 27th in power-play percentage. The only thing sustaining them is their defense and penalty-killing (where they rank in the top five in both categories. Team Captain Sidney Crosby is having the worst season of his career. Team firebrand Pascal Dupuis was forced to retire due to medical issues.
But the firing of Mike Johnston doesn’t address the disease; the rot that has infected and corroded the Penguins since the firings of Ray Shero and Dan Bylsma in 2014. Despite the fact that Pittsburgh has a top five defense in the NHL they are forced to do yeoman work with a severely depleted blue-line corps. Rutherford allowed veteran stalwarts Paul Martin and Christian Ehrhoff to depart (Ehrhoff is having the last laugh. He is playing for the L.A. Kings who are slowly pulling away in the Pacific Division).
Rutherford when announcing Johnston’s firing commented pusillanimously, “in fairness to our coach, part of this falls on me because I didn’t get the defenseman that was necessary to have more puck movement from the back end.”
Wrong, Jim. You’re not partly to blame. You are entirely and solely to blame. Considering how long he has managed in the NHL it’s amazing Rutherford didn’t comb through the NHL looking for proper replacements for Ehrhoff and Martin but when you look at it further it’s not amazing after all. Rutherford spent decades at Carolina perpetuating mediocrity; refusing to make the moves need to be made to sustain success and championship play.
Ray Shero never shrank from acquiring the talents needed to make Pittsburgh the terrors of the Eastern Conference. Under Shero, the Penguins larder was always filled to the gunwales with talent. Depth was Shero’s trademark (it’s not surprising that the New Jersey Devils managed ably by Shero are competing better than the Penguins at this present remove).
That is the tragedy that is afflicting the Pittsburgh Penguins: managerial mediocrity. It never ceases to amaze me how much damage can be caused by a single individual placed in a position of enormous power that they are not fit to wield. As I wrote long ago, Jim Rutherford’s NHL managerial career has been nothing but sustained mediocrity with rare (and well-spaced) flashes of un-sustained success. As the months and years pass how many more Penguin players (holdovers from the glory years) will leave because a once great franchise has been rendered in impotent by a worthless joke of a general manager?
Newly hired head coach Mike Sullivan doesn’t know what he has gotten himself into.