The Penguins' contingent of players, coaches, medical personnel and other staffers embarked for Toronto five days ago for the start of a road trip they hope will last more than two months. The objective is to win three series in Ontario, beginning with a best-of-five against the Canadiens that starts tomorrow, then move on to Edmonton, where the Eastern Conference and Stanley Cup finals will be contested.
But the guy who constructed their roster that will try to do that won't be on hand to watch.
At least not for now.
Jim Rutherford did not accompany his team to Toronto, although he hasn't ruled out meeting up with it at some point later this summer. So for now, he will have something in common with thousands of the franchise's most passionate followers.
"I'll watch from my home," he said.
Precisely who, if anyone, will be watching with him isn't clear. Rutherford is famously withdrawn on game days -- media-friendly at almost all other times, he steadfastly declines to do interviews then -- and still has some habits and routines that likely carry over from his days as a goaltender.
"We'll see how the games are going," he said. "You know how the superstitions go. Who sits where, where you watch them from ... "
Although he has a plan for where he will be when the Penguins' games are in progress, Rutherford doesn't know what he should expect to see, especially in the early part of the Montreal series. After all, there is no precedent for playing such high-stakes games in the immediate aftermath of a 4 1/2-month break such as the one caused by the coronavirus pandemic.
Will shooters be ahead of goalies, maybe? Goalies ahead of shooters?
Rutherford, 71 has been a student of the game for decades, but declined to predict which players, if any, might have an early edge.
"I don't know," he said. "This is all new. I'm curious myself."
He's equally reluctant to predict how long it might take individuals, let alone teams, to elevate their games to the level generally found in the postseason. Some degree of rust seems inevitable, considering that no team has played in a game that counted since March 11.
At the same time, there should be a sense of urgency that isn't usually found in the days immediately after a training camp concludes.
"I don't have any idea," Rutherford said. "That's a tough call. This is new to everybody. This is not the time of year that guys have been brought up to play in. It's getting closer to the time of year where guys are preparing who played in the Canada Cup, that fall series that they've played at different times, but not a lot of guys have played in it. This is a new experience. You really don't know what to expect."
• One thing hasn't changed in Rutherford's routine since he got his start as a GM in Hartford in 1994: No matter what he sees on the ice, he won't bring it to the attention of Mike Sullivan and his staff. Not during the game, anyway. Contacting the bench in real time, he believes, would only complicate the already challenging job of coaching an NHL team. "I wouldn't do that," Rutherford said. "I wouldn't do it if I was at the game. The coaches prepare for the game. The coaches coach the team. My input with the coaches is in between games. It's a hard enough job without having another voice coming out of nowhere. Once that game starts, the game is in their hands."
• The 24 clubs that will participate in postseason play arrived in the NHL hub cities of Toronto and Edmonton Sunday, at which point they entered the "bubble" in which they are scheduled to live and work for as long as they remain involved in the 2019-20 season. But even though the bubble effectively is sealed off to outsiders, the players, coaches and staff members inside of it won't be free to lead "normal" lives. In fact, league regulations have made mask-wearing mandatory whenever individuals are outside of their rooms, with the following exceptions: 1) Players, when exercising or on the ice, 2) Coaches, when on the bench, 3) Broadcasters, when on the air, 4) On-ice officials, during games. 5) When eating or drinking, as long as "physical distancing" is maintained, 6) When performing "essential" work and physical distancing can be maintained, and 7) When doing interviews, again if physical distancing is maintained. -- Molinari
• Hockey practices aren't generally very exciting, but often produce interesting notes or nuggets of news. It could be that a player is missing, that personnel combinations get reconfigured, that the coaching staff designs a workout to focus on a particular facet of its team's play or even that a couple of teammates/friends get worked up and throw a few punches before calming down. Don't look for much of that kind of information to circulate this summer, though, because the people who generally disseminate it -- reporters from independent media outlets -- are prohibited from attending all practices in Toronto and Edmonton. Indeed, the only witness will be the team-employed content-producer that the NHL mandated be part of each club's 52-member postseason contingent. If that person happens to see something of interest at a practice but his/her coach or management doesn't want it to be made public, rest assured that it will remain hidden. The league's rationale for barring reporters from practices seems to be that it wants to limit any possible spread of the coronavirus, which is understandable and completely reasonable, but how is having media members present for games different than allowing those same people into practices? The Penguins, it should be noted, allowed a dozen reporters to attend each day of their training camp, resulting in zero positive tests for coronavirus among players, coaches, staff or those reporters. The pandemic caused the NHL an untold number of headaches, of course, but it also provided the league and teams a convenient excuse to suppress information they would prefer not make it to fans, or anyone else. -- Molinari
• The early returns for Jacob Stallings' glove have been very good, with FanGraphs rating his as the second most valuable defensive catcher this season, barely behind Yadier Molina, entering Thursday. He has thrown out two base runners so far and his framing has been as advertised. What might go unappreciated is how he is blocking pitches in the dirt. "The other day I watched a little bit of the game [from Monday] on replay," Derek Shelton said. "Watching it from the side, I didn’t realize how good three of the blocks he made were. He had one block with a left-handed hitter that he went to his left about as far out as you can go and centered it up. If you were drawing up an instructional video... this would have been in the video. I mean, it was outstanding." Back in Bradenton, bullpen catcher Jordan Comadena told me he thought Stallings could be in the mix for a gold glove if he could get a full season's worth of playing time. If he keeps doing what he's doing and stays healthy, that could be a possibility. -- Alex Stumpf in Chicago
• Cole Tucker took extra batting practice against front office assistant and former major-league lefty Jeremy Bleich this week to try to stay sharp. Tuesday, he got the team's seventh inning rally going with a hit against a southpaw reliever, so that worked showed an immediate return. This is the first time in Tucker's career he is not an everyday player, so this is uncharted territory for him and the club. Under normal circumstances, he would be in class AAA playing everyday until an opportunity presented itself in the majors, but with expanded rosters and no alternative, the best the Pirates can do right now is make him a part-time player. -- Stumpf
• What is happening in the eastern divisions is showing how fragile MLB's plans for playing this season are. The Phillies, Yankees, Nationals, Orioles and Blue Jays did nothing wrong, and their schedules are still being greatly altered because of the Marlins. With so few off-days built into the schedule, it's looking like a possibility that each team won't be able to play 60 games. The last time there was real variance in the number of games each team played in a completed season was in 1981, where a midseason strike caused teams to play between 102 and 110 contests. While each eastern division is guaranteed to send two teams to the playoffs, it might decrease the chances of them sending a third wild card if they can't play the full schedule. -- Stumpf
• While the Steelers have made no official plans to have their radio crew broadcast road games this season from a studio in Pittsburgh, that very well could be what happens. In fact, sources say broadcast partner WDVE and parent company iHeartMedia have informed the crew that typically travels with the Steelers to broadcast the games there's a good chance that won't happen in 2020. The WDVE road broadcast crew includes play-by-play man Bill Hillgrove, color analyst Tunch Ilkin, sideline reporter Craig Wolfley, an engineer and a producer. Part of the reason for the broadcast team to not go to away games and call the games from the studio is because of potential travel constraints. That group typically flies with the team. And with social distancing issues, players will be more spread out on the team charter. Members of the broadcast crew won't have a Tier-1 designation, meaning they aren't permitted any access to players given NFL pandemic rules. One solution would be for the Steelers to take two separate charters to away games, one for players, coaches and the other Tier-1 people such as medical staff, the other for the rest of the support staff designated in Tier 2 or 3. But there are added expenses that are involved with that. -- Dale Lolley on the North Shore
• One of the calling cards of rookie receiver Chase Claypool is his physicality. At 6-foot-4, 238 pounds, Claypool was viewed as a potential tight end going into the NFL Scouting Combine before he went out and ran a 4.42-second 40-yard dash and looked smooth in receiver drills. I asked Claypool how he can show that physicality to the coaching staff with just 14 padded practices and no preseason games with which to make an impression. The second-round pick didn't hesitate with his answer. "I think I can do that within my route running, in terms of just releasing downfield," Claypool said. "I release pretty aggressively, going to attack the ball. Of course, on live plays you don’t want to be too aggressive because it’s your teammates. You try to keep everyone safe, but you can definitely have a play or two where you can kind of come downhill or something, show your physicality." If Claypool can do that, he could earn a spot on the field early. "The physicality is going to show early," offensive coordinator Randy Fichtner said. "I think it is going to lead to a lot of opportunities to help our football team early in a situation like this. ... I am excited because I know he is physical, I know he can run, I know he can learn up to this point." -- Lolley
• One of the key notes from NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell's statement to fans he sent out earlier this week was that he is confident the league will play a "complete" season in 2020. Note that Goodell, who is very particular with his words, didn't say a 16-game season. The league will play what it considers a complete season in 2020. It will have a Super Bowl at the end of it all and crown a champion. But there are contingency plans in place in case something happens with an individual team such as what happened with the Marlins last weekend. And there also are plans in place if certain areas of the country -- or entire nation -- are shut down. That's just the way things have to be at this point. Remember, the NFL has played shorter-than-normal seasons in the past. In both 1982 and 1987, the number of games played were nine and 15, respectively, because of player strikes. A Super Bowl was still held, and a champions crowned, at the end of both of those seasons. -- Lolley
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