Blueprint for Jim Rutherford's 1st Offseason with Pittsburgh Penguins

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Blueprint for Jim Rutherford's 1st Offseason with Pittsburgh Penguins
Keith Srakocic/Associated Press

The Pittsburgh Penguins shocked the hockey world when they hired ex-Carolina Hurricanes general manager Jim Rutherford to replace the recently fired Ray Shero.

Greg Wyshynski over at Puck Daddy wrote that "the Penguins might have come off [with] the most crazy-pants managerial decision we've seen in recent memory," while Adrian Dater claimed that the move proved that the "good old boys club" mentality was alive and well in the NHL.

Never mind how strange it is that the new GM already seems to have his exit date in mind.

Regardless of how the fanbase feels about Rutherford as the new GM, the Penguins are his to operate on a daily basis for the foreseeable future. There might not be a more important window of time in his short tenure than this summer, as there are a handful of tough and important choices to be made.

One of the bigger names has already fallen, as Rutherford decided to ax head coach Dan Bylsma without ever actually conversing with the man.

Rob Rossi of the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review recently reported that the Penguins will have a new head coach in place by July 1 and that Wilkes-Barre/Scranton bench boss John Hynes has the inside track on the gig.

Once all the front-office shuffling is completed and a coach is in place, Rutherford and his fleet of assistants will have a number of decisions to make about key personnel.

 

Gene J. Puskar/Associated Press

The Future of Marc-Andre Fleury

It didn't take long for Rutherford to give incumbent starting goalie Marc-Andre Fleury a vote of confidence in public. During an interview with 93.7 The Fan (transcribed by NHL.com), he had this to say about the embattled netminder:

The one thing I'll say about Fleury is this past season was the best season, the most consistent season he's had over several seasons, probably over three or four seasons. Other than a couple of goals in the Columbus series, I thought his playoff series performance was fine, his regular season was fine and from an ability point of view he's a very, very good goalie.

Going back a couple years, I think the mental part of the game was difficult for him, and certainly it seems that whatever he did in last offseason has strengthened his position, and I see him as a guy that'll build off of last season and be as good or better next year.

Those comments should all but kill the buyout chatter (ESPN Insider subscription required) surrounding Fleury. That doesn't mean that Rutherford doesn't still have to come up with a contingency plan for Flower. The new manager might have been OK with Fleury's performance during the postseason while he was watching from afar, but the netminder gave up more than "a couple" of bad goals.

USA TODAY Sports

After pitching shutouts in Games 2 and 3 of the second round against the New York Rangers, Fleury went on to produce three sub-.900 save-percentage outings. The Penguins had three chances to close out the Blueshirts, and Fleury gave up 11 goals on the next 98 shots he saw in Games 4 through 7.

That's not good enough, regardless of how strong the goalie was during the regular season. His job seems safe, but a strong No. 2 should be brought in as a 35-start backup. Ideally, it would be a guy who could take over in a playoff series and someone who could push Fleury for starts should he flounder.

There are plenty of interesting options available, as this summer is a buyer's market for netminders. That's why Rutherford should attack this issue now instead of waiting another season. Go out and trade for James Reimer or sign Martin Brodeur as a stopgap while the cap hits are down and there is a lot of help available.

Jeff Zatkoff was given a two-year extension last December, but that was a Shero contract. The current backup has a very friendly cap number, but the Penguins were reluctant to turn to him in the postseason. There needs to be a capable No. 2 in place by the time the playoffs roll around, and the best time to address that is during the offseason when there are numerous options available.

 

Jamie Sabau/Getty Images

Piecing Together a Stronger Blue Line

Pittsburgh's defensive group was in shambles during the 2013-14 campaign. Injuries plagued the core unit of six, and once the pairings came together in the playoffs, weaknesses were apparent, and the Rangers were able to take advantage of the group's lack of foot speed.

Jamie Sabau/Getty Images

After a full summer to rest up and recuperate, Kris Letang should be back to his normal, Erik Karlsson-esque self in 2014-15. A healthy Letang will be a massive boost for the Penguins, and one they won't need to give up anything to get.

Brooks Orpik's six-year, $22.5 million contract is coming off the books, and Rutherford should allow the 33-year-old defender to walk as a free agent. He's been a warrior and a great Penguin, but he was susceptible to soft play during the playoffs. The time is now to move on with a different player rounding out Pittsburgh's top four.

That player should be Matt Niskanen, who could fetch upward of $6 million if he hits the open market as a free agent.

CapGeek.com is currently listing next season's salary cap at $71.1 million. The news that the NHL earned a record $3.7 billion in revenue last year gives us a cap around the $69 to $70 million range. If that's the case, the Penguins will have nearly $16 million to round out a roster that only has 14 players under contract for next season.

Handing Niskanen $5 million of that may seem risky, but if he walks, then the team will need to replace him. It won't be able to get a better player or a better cap hit, so why not work with in-house chips? If it takes trading away a moving piece, then so be it, but Niskanen needs to stay in Pittsburgh.

 

Scott Levy/Getty Images

Depth Players Must Be Supplemented

This has been an issue for the Penguins for at least a year now. They're remarkably top heavy, with Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin expected to do a majority of the offensive heavy lifting. That system appears to work during the regular season, but the wheels fall off during the playoffs, as opposing coaches are able to line match on a nightly basis.

The exiled Shero attempted to shore up the offensive depth by bringing in Lee Stempniak and Marcel Goc at the trade deadline, but those acquisitions didn't pan out through two rounds of postseason action.

So the issue falls to Rutherford now, and he'll need to find a way to bring in a few decent forwards who can score while playing on the third or fourth lines. Some of that help can come from the current roster. Beau Bennett is a young forward who could—during a full and healthy season—produce 15 or 20 goals.

Brian Gibbons started to come around in the second round, and he was an Energizer bunny for the AHL Penguins during the playoffs. Look for him to see an increased role on Pittsburgh's fourth line next season.

That won't be quite enough to close the depth gap that stands between the Penguins and the likes of the Chicago Blackhawks and Los Angeles Kings, though.

It'll take some creative managing, but one option could be moving a guy such as James Neal out simply to make cap space for two players who can skate on the second and third lines. Regardless of how it's done, the wealth (figuratively and literally) needs to be more spread out in 2014-15 if a Stanley Cup is the goal. And it obviously is.

 

Statistical information appears courtesy of NHL.com. Contract information appears courtesy of CapGeek.com.

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