Following a disappointing second round exit in the 2014 playoffs that saw them let a 3-1 series lead slip away against the New York Rangers, the Pittsburgh Penguins started to make significant changes to their organization, with the biggest move being the firing of general manager Ray Shero.
To replace him they turned to Jim Rutherford, the former long-time general manager of the Carolina Hurricanes. Given the Hurricanes' lack of success in recent years, as well as the fact it seemed be a short-term solution, it was a curious move at the time. Things did not get any clearer during his first year on the job when the Penguins nearly missed the playoffs and were again knocked out of the playoffs by the Rangers.
What a difference one year can make.
Thanks in large part to Rutherford's complete overhaul of the roster in his two years in the front office, the Penguins are back in the Stanley Cup Final for the first time since 2009 where they will take on the San Jose Sharks.
When Rutherford arrived the hard part was already taken care because there was already a core of superstar players in Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin and Kris Letang. The challenge was finding a way to build a team around them that could complement them and help them get back to a championship level. Only seven players that skated in that 2014 playoff series remain on the roster today, and two of them (Marc-Andre Fleury and Beau Bennett) are not even playing a major role on this team.
Here is how it happened as we take a look at how this current playoff roster was assembled.
Rutherford has only been in charge of two drafts for the Penguins and while a couple of players from those classes have had a brief look in the NHL (Daniel Sprong, their second-round pick in 2015, appeared in 18 games this year, while Dominik Simon, their fifth round pick in 2015, played in three) nobody has really had a chance to make an impact. The biggest impact his two drafts have had is that their first-round pick in 2014 (Kasperi Kapenen) was used a trade chip in a major deal for Phil Kessel (we will get to that in a bit).
Overall, the Penguins have had 11 players appear in a playoff game this year that were originally drafted by the organization.
Four of those players, and three of the most significant contributors, were selected by Craig Patrick (Sidney Crosby and Kris Letang in 2005, Evgeni Malkin in 2004, and Marc-Andre Fleury in 2003) during the franchise's down years in the early 2000s when they were consistently picking at the top of the draft.
Here is a look at all of the draft pick contributions in order of what overall pick they were selected with.
|Player||Year||Round (Overall pick)||2016 Playoff Production|
|Sidney Crosby||2005||1st (1st)||18 games, 6 goals, 9 assists|
|Marc-Andre Fleury||2003||1st (1st)||2 games, .875 save percentage|
|Evgeni Malkin||2004||1st (2nd)||18 games 4, goals, 11 assists|
|Derrick Pouliot||2012||1st (8th)||2 games, 0 goals, 0 assists|
|Beau Bennett||2010||1st (20th)||1 game, 0 goals, 0 assists|
|Olli Maatta||2012||1st (22nd)||12 games, 0 goals, 3 assists|
|Kris Letang||2005||3rd (62nd)||17 games, 2 goals, 8 assists|
|Bryan Rust||2010||3rd (80th)||17 games, 5 goals, 3 assists|
|Oskar Sundqvist||2012||3rd (81st)||2 games, 0 goals, 0 assists|
|Matt Murray||2012||3rd (82nd)||15 games, .924 save percentage|
|Tom Kuhnhackl||2010||4th (110th)||18 games, 2 goals, 3 assists|
|Total Production||19 goals, 37 assists, 56 points|
Shero's draft record and player development was a big target for criticism during his time with the team, and a lot of it was justified. The Penguins made a habit out of trading multiple draft picks (or players they had already selected in previous drafts) for short-term rentals that rarely made an impact. That started a tough cycle where they never had enough draft picks to fully replenish their farm system, which meant they never had a chance to build a pipeline of young talent to fill out the roster, which forced them to keep trading for more rentals to fill those spots so they could try to capitalize on the prime years of Crosby and Malkin.
But as you can see above the 2010 and 2012 classes did produce some talent, the most important of which is Matt Murray, their third-round pick in 2012. That 2012 class also produced Pouliot (drafted with a pick acquired in a trade, which we will again get to) and Olli Maatta.
Bryan Rust and Tom Kuhnhackl, mid-round picks in 2010, have also been important depth players this season for the Penguins and have helped provide some secondary scoring.
This current Penguins team has had little impact from free agency, which probably should not be much of a surprise. Given the amount of salary cap space the Penguins have invested in the top of their roster they are not going to be in a position to be significant players in free agency other than role players.
Only four players that have appeared in a playoff game this year were signed as free agents, and that includes Conor Sheary who was added as an undrafted free agent.
|Player||Year Signed||Original Term||Playoff Production|
|Jeff Zatkoff||2012||two years||2 games, .908 save percentage|
|Conor Sheary||2014||UDFA||17 games, 2 goals, 5 assists|
|Matt Cullen||2015||one year||18 games, 4 goals, 2 assists|
|Eric Fehr||2015||three years||17 games, 2 goals, 1 assist|
|Total Production||8 goals, 8 assists|
Cullen is the big one here just because of the value he has provided. He has been a favorite of Rutherford going back to their days together in Carolina, and he brought him to Pittsburgh this summer on a one-year deal that pays him only $800,000. Nobody, probably not even Cullen or Rutherford, could have anticipated him making the impact that he has. The 39-year-old ended up scoring 15 goals during the regular season and has been a rock-solid addition to their fourth line.
This is where Rutherford has made his impact on the Penguins. Two of the players on the roster were acquired in trades made by Shero. Chris Kunitz was acquired in 2009 on their way to the Stanley Cup in the deal that sent Ryan Whitney to Anaheim, while defenseman Brian Dumoulin was acquired at the 2012 draft in the trade that sent Jordan Staal to Carolina for the N0. 8 overall pick (Pouliot) and Brandon Sutter.
Rutherford, of course, was the general manager on the other side of that deal.
Over the past two years Rutherford has added eight players to this roster via trade.
|Player (Traded From)||Year||Key Expense||Playoff Production|
|Chris Kunitz (Anaheim)||2009||Ryan Whitney||18 games, 4 goals, 6 assists|
|Brian Dumoulin (Carolina)||2012||Jordan Staal||18 games, 1 goal, 6 assists|
|Patric Hornqvist (Nashville)||2014||James Neal||18 games, 7 goals, 4 assists|
|Ben Lovejoy (Anaheim)||2014||Simon Despres||18 games, 1 goal, 3 assists|
|Ian Cole (St. Louis)||2014||Robert Bortuzzo||18 games, 0 goals, 2 assists|
|Phil Kessel (Toronto)||2015||Kasperi Kapanen, first round pick||18 games, 9 goals, 9 assists|
|Nick Bonino (Vancouver)||2015||Brandon Sutter||18 games, 3 goals, 12 assists|
|Trevor Daley (Chicago)||2015||Rob Scuderi||15 games, 1 goal, 5 assists|
|Carl Hagelin (Anaheim)||2015||David Perron||18 games, 5 goals, 7 assists|
|Justin Schultz (Edmonton)||2015||Third Round Pick||9 games, 0 goals, 2 assists|
|Total Production||31 goals, 54 assists, 85 points|
The trades from the 2014 were a bit of a mixed bag. The James Neal trade was his first major trade in charge of the Penguins and there are a lot of ways to look at it. The Neal for Hornqvist part of the trade is one both teams are probably happy with now. Neal is a 30-goal guy in Nashville, Hornqvist is a net-front power forward that the Penguins wanted.
The problem for Pittsburgh a year ago is that it also included Nick Spaling, who cost a lot money for the fourth line role he played. That extra cap space played a big role down the stretch run of the 2014-15 season when the Penguins did not have enough cap space to dress a full lineup on defense. The Ben Lovejoy for Simon Despres trade was a huge target for criticism at the time, and Rutherford himself even later admitted it was one he probably would not make again, but it hasn't turned out to be anywhere near as bad as originally believed ... for now.
Then you get to the trades made over the past year. There are some big ones here, especially when it comes to the Kessel, Bonino and Hagelin trades that helped form the HBK line that has been a game-changer this postseason.
It all started with the Kessel deal was one of the biggest blockbuster moves of the summer. He acquired Bonino, along with defenseman Adam Clendening, in a deal for Sutter that also gave them just enough salary cap space to add Fehr in free agency. Clendening was then later packaged with David Perron in January in the trade that brought Hagelin to Pittsburgh.
The Daley for Scuderi trade also helped significantly change the look of their defense, while Daley played a huge role in the second round to help them get by the Washington Capitals when Letang was suspended for a game.
When it comes to the Daley and Hagelin trades a lot of it was Rutherford simply working to correct some mistakes that were made during his first year-and-a-half on the job. Trading their 2015 first-round pick for Perron turned out to be a move that just did not work as planned, while the roster that opened the season had some significant flaws that needed to be corrected, especially when it came to the lack of mobility on defense. At the time of the coaching change Rutherford even admitted he probably did get the necessary defensemen to start the season.
Basically, he needed to push the right buttons to get things back on track. With the Daley and Hagelin trades he did exactly that.