Jim Rutherford's an honest man.
I've appreciated that about the Penguins' general manager even more than his massive success in Pittsburgh, even more than his kindness and professionalism. He doesn't say what he thinks you want to hear. He doesn't distort or disguise. Sure, he's got the gamesmanship necessary for the job, so he'll occasionally pump up a Derrick Pouliot to heighten trade value. But he never strays far from the straightest approach possible.
I spoke at length with Rutherford by phone Sunday afternoon on an array of topics pertinent to this offseason, and I'll share our conversation in the form of a special edition of Grind:
[caption id="attachment_644633" align="aligncenter" width="640"] Phil Kessel. - MATT SUNDAY / DKPS[/caption]
THE KESSEL STUFF
According to Mark Madden of 105.9 the X, Mike Sullivan and Phil Kessel have developed a rift that has prompted the Penguins to try to trade Kessel. Other sites repeated the original report or otherwise built off it. The topic became heavily discussed among the fan base.
My own longstanding policy has been to not comment on — or confirm or corroborate — other outlets' reporting. We have enough of our own work to do here. But there's been enough about this Kessel trade issue that I felt it was worth running it all past the one individual empowered to make such a thing happen.
So I asked Rutherford, specifically, if there was anything about the Sullivan/Kessel relationship that might motivate him to make a trade and, additionally, if he felt newly motivated to trade Kessel for any reason.
Rutherford's response couldn't have been more emphatic.
"The answer is no," he came back. "I don't feel I need to trade this player, and there's certainly nothing new that's developed regarding this in any way."
He then spoke passionately about Kessel's competitive level and how that was evident on and off the ice this past regular season. He declined to get into specifics on the record, but I'll add this myself: I've witnessed Kessel being tough on people all through the Penguins' organization, from equipment managers to media relations officials, all the way up to the coaches. He's exceptionally particular, exceptionally fussy. What I've never witnessed, though, was Kessel doing that out of malice or weirdness or anything other than keeping his focus where he wants it. And when he's at the rink, that focus is on winning at hockey. It's not on being Mr. Congeniality with all his co-workers. It's certainly not on speaking with reporters, though I've never had any problem with him myself. It's about winning. And if he ticks a few people off in the process, even the head coach, so be it.
That's not rift material, as I see it. That's Phil being Phil. And while Sullivan hasn't always been tickled about Phil being Phil, I know from having spoken with both men about this many times that there's a mutual, if often grudging, respect there. They've helped each other win, and that's what matters most to both.
Final disclaimer: I'm doing my own reporting here with my own sources, and I'm not questioning Madden's reporting or his sources. It's a big world. There's always room for multiple perspectives.
[caption id="attachment_644634" align="aligncenter" width="640"] Daniel Sprong. - MATT SUNDAY / DKPS[/caption]
THE ROOKIE LOCKS?
The Penguins' two most prominent acquisitions, if you will, are going to come from the inside this summer.
The importance of Daniel Sprong and Zach Aston-Reese to the roster construction for 2018-19 can't be overstated, based on this and other talks I've had with management. And yeah, I know this isn't the stuff of super-hot-hockey-trade-rumor headlines, but that doesn't mean it isn't atop the list.
When I asked Rutherford if the maturation of Sprong and Aston-Reese would likely outweigh the impact of any offseason move he might make, he replied, "That would be accurate."
He then added, "Look, we expect to win. We've got a winning team. We're looking to get some guys back fresher and healthier, and we won't be coming off two Stanley Cup runs. That's a big thing. But these two guys ... this should be their time. They need to be a big part of what we're doing, and we're confident they will be."
Rutherford previously made that much clear to reporters two days after the Penguins' playoff elimination. He stated outright that both would be expected to make the NHL roster and, as a result, both would be expected to contribute.
But I asked him to further clarify if that meant they'll basically be guaranteed roster spots, even with the context that Sprong's about to lose his waiver-exempt status.
"Not more than any player would, of course," he said. "But they will be given a better opportunity to play key roles. That's something we've been talking a lot about. Their development has run its course. It's time to see what they can do in the NHL."
Sprong is the bigger question mark, partly because, at 21, he's two years younger than Aston-Reese, but also because Aston-Reese showed a far more polished 200-foot game. Sprong's problems haven't been rooted in a lack of will and definitely not in a lack of skill — the kid's an elite NHL shooter when he rolls out of bed — but rather, a lack of concentration in the neutral and defensive zones.
"He can score goals. We know that," Rutherford said. "And we might have to live with some other things for a while, but we also believe very strongly that he can get better in his overall game."
[caption id="attachment_644630" align="aligncenter" width="640"] Tristan Jarry. - MATT SUNDAY / DKPS[/caption]
So why, then, not put Tristan Jarry into the same category?
He's 23, and he was signed to his two-way contract and assigned to Wilkes-Barre Scranton way back in April 2015, where he's spent most of the past three seasons. More relevant, maybe, he frequently showed NHL ability over his 26 games in Pittsburgh this past season: 14-6-2, 2.77 goals-against average, .908 save percentage and two shutouts.
"It's a different position," Rutherford replied to the question. "Those other guys are wingers. Goaltending comes with its own challenges."
Of course. Among them is showing the ability to be a backup behind a clear No. 1 like Matt Murray. That's the main reason Casey DeSmith, who's three years older and spent most of his minor-league career as a backup, was the choice to support Murray in the recent playoffs. Also among the challenges is that goaltending is more complex with less room for error. A winger messes up, and no one might notice. A goaltender messes up, and the scoreboard changes.
That said, Rutherford spoke glowingly of Jarry's potential.
"Our people feel very strongly about Tristan and what he can do," he said. "Coming up through the system, he was held in just as high a regard as Murray, and I think that gets forgotten. He's a good player."
It sounds to me, again based on this and other conversations I've had with management, Jarry will have to earn it. He'll get a chance to beat out DeSmith, but he'll have to actually do it. All concerned sound pleased, for now, with the rotation behind Murray.
[caption id="attachment_644626" align="aligncenter" width="640"] Matt Hunwick. - MATT SUNDAY / DKPS[/caption]
THE HUNWICK CONTRACT
Matt Hunwick was terrible in 2017-18, burying him so deep on the defensive depth chart that he never participated in the playoffs. That's not much of a return, to put it mildly, for the three-year, $6.75 million contract he and the Penguins signed out of free agency last summer.
Which prompted this question for Rutherford: Come on, somebody had to have seen something they liked before signing him, right?
"Oh, definitely. And I think we're going to see that come out," he replied.
So what happened?
"Look, I'm not going to make excuses for Matt. He's an NHL defenseman. But our guys believe that it really affected him coming to a Stanley Cup champion and feeling like he had to prove something special every time he was on the ice. And I understand that. I've seen that before. Guys try to do too much. They overcompensate. They get out of position. There were times when he'd play fine, and there were times when he'd get out of his game. That's when he'd get in trouble."
Hm. I contrasted that to Justin Schultz's acquisition from the Oilers in early 2016.
"Right. Totally different. We weren't a defending champion then. The expectations weren't the same. Everyone was more relaxed. And I think, because of that, all the work that Mike and the coaches did with Justin on the side was able to sink in. There wasn't the same pressure to perform and impress everybody right away."
It didn't help Hunwick's cause, Rutherford added, that Jamie Oleksiak became an instant mainstay upon his arrival, or that the top-six breakdown forced Hunwick to skate on the right side as a left-handed shot, not the norm through his career.
At any rate, between having Chad Ruhwedel and Hunwick as the current Nos. 6 and 7 on the depth chart, expect another defenseman or two to be added, even if it's just on two-way or other low-risk terms. Especially since the system recently lost Lukas Bengtsson and Andrey Pedan to European teams.
And don't, by the way, expect a buyout of Hunwick's contract. He'll get another chance.
[caption id="attachment_644682" align="aligncenter" width="640"] Ilya Kovalchuk at the PyeongChang Olympics in February. - AP[/caption]
FREE AGENCY, TRADES
Although Rutherford's downplaying outside acquisitions — which he doesn't always do, to say the least — he also made clear to me that he's determined to build a lineup that offers more five-on-five productivity from the first forward line to the fourth.
"Whatever we do in free agency and trades, that's the priority, having that balance on all four lines," he said. "Everyone's got to be able to chip in and score some goals. I think that's going to be most important for us."
He didn't get into specifics, but that doesn't stop me from having a little fun with what's currently known:
That obviously omits Conor Sheary and Dominik Simon, but I chose Kuhnhackl purely for his penalty-killing. If Brassard does more PK work and Aston-Reese continues to improve in that facet — he'll get that chance — then maybe Kuhnhackl gets bumped, and that scoring balance is more easily unearthed. Or maybe someone takes Sheary's $3 million salary in a trade. Or maybe Simon steps up, as he did in spurts as a rookie.
Rutherford also mentioned seeking balance on defense, though not necessarily through acquisitions.
"We want to make sure we're not overplaying our top pairing," he said, initially referring to Kris Letang and Brian Dumoulin but then immediately adding, "especially Kris. We had to rely too much on him in a lot of situations, and I think that's where most of his mistakes were made. When he's been at his best, it's when his minutes have been managed and he's been able to stay within himself."
As for free agency in general, Rutherford said, "We'll see how the cap goes. From there, we'll have a better feel for what we can handle on the market."
By the way, the Penguins are not in on the premier Russian free agent, Ilya Kovalchuk, who's made known at age 35 that he'd like to return from the KHL to the NHL.
THE RESTRICTED FREE AGENTS
The Penguins' most notable RFAs are Bryan Rust, Riley Sheahan, Tom Kuhnhackl, Dominik Simon, Sprong and Oleksiak. Expect all to be retained, Rutherford strongly suggested, with a chance that Rust gets a longer-term extension.
THE NHL DRAFT
For a fourth consecutive summer, the Penguins will be without a first-round pick in the NHL Draft, June 22-23 in Dallas. That will leave them waiting until the 53rd overall pick. Rutherford might be open to moving up if it were way up, but that would presume his scouts would have a target they'd covet in an above-and-beyond way, and it would presume that player could step in right away. Such discussions haven't yet taken place, he stressed.
[caption id="attachment_644685" align="aligncenter" width="640"] Jim Rutherford's usual perch in Cranberry. - MATT SUNDAY / DKPS[/caption]
GETTING SOME REST
Rutherford took the series loss to the Capitals as hard as anyone, and he, like all those in the organization with whom I've spoken, aren't taking solace in Washington having now advanced within two games of the Stanley Cup. He'd constructed the 2017-18 roster with a singular aim of a third consecutive championship, and that mindset doesn't lend itself to consolation of any kind.
But he did sound like he was appreciating the rare downtime after two extended runs the previous two years.
"Relaxing a little. Enjoying the family," he said. "I think our whole team, all of us, will come back stronger for this. I think we'll be more ready for another run. I really do."
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