VANCOUVER, British Columbia -- The Penguins won't trade Evgeni Malkin or Kris Letang.
When I asked Jim Rutherford on the NHL Draft floor at Rogers Arena late Friday night if he was prepared to say those two won't be traded, he replied flatly, "I'm prepared to say it's highly unlikely they won't."
When his answer went no further, but he kept looking right at me apparently ready for more, I asked if there'd been any activity, any movement on either front with any team, he replied equally flatly, "Well, I won't get into that. But, I mean, I'm open to accepting calls. And having conversations about our players. I wasn't aggressively active on trying to move those top guys."
Here's the whole exchange:
There. Choose to believe what you want.
Rutherford's offered open-ended phrases to describe the Malkin/Letang status pretty much since his team finished shaking hands with the Islanders. He's done so with multiple media outlets, including this one, and he's gotten the requisite rise out of all of us. And the fan base. And, no doubt, the two franchise players themselves.
My friends, that's precisely the point.
I'll share what I increasingly believe about this situation after several good talks out here: Rutherford and Mike Sullivan are laying down the law.
They want people writing columns like this.
They want the result to be a lack of comfort.
They want people on the outside, but particularly on the inside, to be cringing and complaining.
Because once mid-September skates up, Rutherford and Sullivan are going to read all concerned the riot act. They're going to let everyone know that if they don't behave and perform up to a certain standard, that every last one of them not wearing an 87 on his sweater is about to be considered expendable.
I'm not guessing at this. I've heard this. And I strongly suspect we'll hear more of it Saturday, when Sullivan's expected to speak with reporters for the first time since season's end.
In the interim, here's more from Rutherford, and this was a telling remark when asked to what degree he anticipates roster turnover: "I don't think that was ever the intention. We wanted to make some changes, change a little bit of the culture in the room. We've started to do that. We'll probably do it prior to training camp."
Catch that last part?
He's not talking about major moves. Those don't happen "prior to training camp." What happens in that span is that the culture is established.
Here's another one: "We need to retool or freshen things up a little bit, get a few new faces in there, and then go about our business a little bit differently, you know, from the coach's point of view, from my point of view, from the leaders of the team. Try to bring it together earlier in the year. Because that's something we didn't do last year."
There it is again.
Wait, one more: "I think we can go about having a bit of a different approach. If we can make two or three moves over the summer -- and we've already made one -- then regroup and get the team in the right direction where it can come together ... we have good players, good enough players to win. We could never bring the team together last year."
That, I'm told, is what's being discussed out here, in this rare convergence of all front office, coaches, scouts and instructors. It's primarily been a great big reset button on the team's standard. Rutherford hinted at it in our talk back in Pittsburgh a week ago, and out here it's found full flight. This GM and this coach have a vision for this roster of becoming "hard to play against," to borrow Sullivan's signature phrase, and they're so invested in it that, to ensure that happens, they're genuinely ready to take actions that had been previously unthinkable.
I love it.
This is why I've been writing since season's end that Malkin and Letang weren't going anywhere. Because neither lacks passion. They just occasionally drift into their own direction, usually on the ice. Malkin will be a greater challenge, as the team firmly feels he needs to adjust his overall game to his age, but both are eminently doable. And maybe just as important, both want to play out their careers in Pittsburgh, viscerally attached to their legacies as Penguins.
Repeating: Those two aren't going anywhere.
And if anyone requires more evidence there:
• The Penguins have not approached Malkin about his no-trade clause, as our Dave Molinari reported in Friday Insider, and apparently have no plan to do so. There's been no indication, either, that any such approach was made with Letang.
• One report stated that the Penguins and Maple Leafs have discussed Letang. They actually haven't. Rutherford was asked by a Toronto reporter if he'd been in any contact with the Leafs on any matter of late, and Rutherford replied that he had not. He'll engage in a lot of gamesmanship, but his answer there would have been a non-answer rather than a rejection if there'd been any communication.
• The window's closing. Rutherford strikingly acknowledged that major moves are much more likely in the handful of days between now and the July 1 opening of NHL free agency and that, if one isn't done by then, it probably won't happen. That's nine days away.
So, what about Phil Kessel?
I've been writing all along that Kessel is by far the most likely to go, and nothing I've heard here has altered that stance.
Asked if there'd been anything new on the Kessel front, Rutherford came back with a single syllable: "No." Now, that obviously could be interpreted any which way but, again, we don't have to wonder on this count. Rutherford's already shown his hand by trying once with the Wild, and he'll keep trying until he finds fair return.
As he should. Kessel won't change. I'm not sure he can change. All the traits that make Phil so lovable to so many are also what keep him from conceding to others' expectations. And because of that and all of the above ... he won't just be handed away, but he'll be moved.
Should make that mid-September paint-peeling all the more compelling.
DEJAN KOVACEVIC GALLERY
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