Pittsburgh Penguins Offseason: If Jim Rutherford is Fired, Will Mike Johnston Follow?


As rumors rage across the Steel City about the possibility of Pittsburgh Penguins General Manager Jim Rutherford being relieved of his duties at season’s end, the obvious next target for termination stands behind the bench of the struggling squad.

In his first full season as head coach of the Penguins, Mike Johnston lead his squad to a playoff berth, but just barely. The team finished the regular season with 98 points, posting a record of 43-27-12. The aforementioned playoff entrance was only secured in the season’s final game against the league’s worst team, the Buffalo Sabres.

The playoffs proved to be an equally disappointing affair, as the Pittsburgh Penguins were eliminated in five games at the hands of the New York Rangers. While goaltender Marc-Andre Fleury has performed superbly, the rest of the team has struggled, with the injury-decimated roster finding itself susceptible to mistakes with the puck and unable to post tally points on the scoreboard.

To know who Penguins fans hold accountable for this inability to win, one only needs to briefly scan social media before a picture begins to materialize.

The overhaul of the team’s front office and coaching staff was the result of stagnant playoff play. With the team’s disappointing performance to close the season and into the playoffs, anger and frustration has begun to spread.

Rutherford’s performance as GM has been tricky to assess. It is difficult to blame someone for scrambling in the face of such incredible challenges. Most would have scoffed at the notion that the Penguins would lose the majority of their top defensemen and several key wingers to severe injuries for either long stretches or the entire season. However, it is Rutherford’s job description to help fix these misfortunes. Instead, he seems to have exasperated the issues through poor trades and salary cap mismanagement.

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He was notorious for the latter issue after his time with the Carolina Hurricanes, who have been handicapped by a number of the bad contracts Rutherford saddled them with. The former problem is merely a continuation of one initiated by his predecessor. Much of the criticism leveled against Ray Shero has been in regards to his reputation for trading away the team’s future for present success. Draft picks would fly off the shelves for temporary upgrades to the team’s roster. By trading away the team’s first round pick to Edmonton for David Perron and the fourth-round pick to Toronto for Daniel Winnik, Rutherford has continued to stymie the Penguins potential for prospect development that would greatly help the team’s salary situation.

Considering that Johnston’s hiring was a decision made by Rutherford and Rutherford has proven himself to be underwhelming in many ways, consideration is being paid to the idea that Johnston’s first season with the Pittsburgh Penguins may also be his last. However, to draw parallels between the two’s successes and failures would be to unfairly assess their abilities.

Rutherford’s reactions to the team’s numerous misfortunes have proven to be failures. Johnston, however, attempted to do his best to work with what he had. Was his new strategy without fault? Of course not.

The team struggled with penalties and puck mismanagement. But the Penguins also were playing down a player for the majority of the last few weeks and the defense has utilized a mishmash of players in the playoffs. When the team was playing at full-health, they were as strong as any team in the league.

Johnston’s strategy of puck possession is one that is proven to be successful in the NHL. The Pittsburgh Penguins have struggled with it lately because the offensive component relies heavily on puck-mobile defensemen and most of the men who fit that description for the Pens are currently injured. The bad luck mounted for the team all season long, but while Rutherford seems to have accidentally inflicted even more damage on the organization, Johnston did his very best to make it work.

When the season is over and the higher-ups look at the job performances of these men, I hope they are able to see the distinction between Rutherford’s innate managerial flaws and Johnston’s bad hand.

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