Pittsburgh Penguins: Did Rutherford’s Offseason Plan Sink Johnston?

The Pittsburgh Penguins have a new head coach in Mike Sullivan. Did Jim Rutherford’s offseason machinations sink former Head Coach Mike Johnston?

When the announcement came that the Pittsburgh Penguins had decided to move on from Mike Johnston as the head coach, my initial reaction was approval.

At the end of the day the Penguins were not playing up to their potential, and without tremendous efforts from Marc-Andre Fleury and Evgeni Malkin the Pens would be in significantly worse shape than they are currently. Just as a reminder, the Pens are not currently in playoff position. That is how woeful this team has performed versus expectation.

The system Johnston employed was simply not working with the personnel he had at his disposal. Regardless of what I say moving forward, I do agree that this was the right decision to make.

However, I think that the frustrations and blame of the fan base should not be directed at Johnston. The fan’s ire should be directed at the offseason strategy employed by Jim Rutherford; a strategy that involved going all out to strengthen the forward group and make four legitimate scoring lines.

At the time that Rutherford’s plan was unfolding over the summer, I’ll be the first to admit that I was really excited about it.

With every move he made (acquiring Phil Kessel, Eric Fehr, Nick Bonino, Sergei Plotnikov, and Matt Cullen), I would look at the depth chart and honestly get a little turned on by how good it looked on paper. I dated a lovely girl for two years and I never felt even close to as good about that as I did about the Penguins roster. With the players we had (and their underlying possession numbers), I honestly believed that this Pittsburgh Penguins team would, barring injury, win the Stanley Cup.

I told every single member of my family as well as my friend(s) that the Cup was theirs. I had literally no doubts.

But here’s the problem that I’ve now finally come to acknowledge. See, me and Jim Rutherford grew up in essentially the same place. Tottenham for him, Alliston for me; they’re 10 minutes apart, I swear. It’s a truly lovely community, full of great, great people. It’s also a very simple community. We’re not a very complex people.

If you put something bright and shiny in front of my face, I can literally stand there for hours staring at it, smiling and laughing. We get distracted with and fall in love with big, flashy things sometimes, rather than thinking through all our options and making the most logical choice.

I believe that this offseason, that exact thing happened with Jim Rutherford. The 2014-15 season ended in an injury-filled, miserable, goal-less mess and naturally, no one was happy with the way it went down.

So what did Rutherford do in response to this? He went for the bright shiny thing. He went for Kessel. He went for four legitimate scoring lines. He went for firepower up and down his forward group. And it sounded so good, so bright and so colourful, that I fell for it. And I think most other people did too. And honestly, even writing it down right now is making me feel excited for it.

It sounded like such a kick-ass plan.

So why exactly didn’t it work? Well, if there’s one thing I’ve learned from playing more seasons of my franchise on NHL 15 than I care to share (its more than 5, I’ll say that), its that your coach and general manager need to be on the same page. In NHL 15, when our general manager (me) acquired players that didn’t fit how the coach (also me) wanted his players (also me) to play, then it straight up didn’t work out well no matter how good it sounded.

The same logic bears out in real life.

When Mike Johnston was hired by the Pittsburgh Penguins, this was a Jim Rutherford sound bite. “(Johnston’s) coaching style is going to be good for the players we have here with the Penguins — it’s an up-tempo style, but it begins from deep in the defensive zone. We’re very excited to have him.” The emphasis in bold is my own.

It was known, from the beginning, that Johnston wanted a team that had players on the back-end that could skate and move the puck efficiently. The idea was that the offense would be created from the defense. Rutherford did acknowledge today that he didn’t give Johnston the defencemen he needed to succeed and I think that is a significant understatement.

Just take a look at the difference in the top 6 from one year to the next:

Last Year: Letang, Martin, Erhoff, Maata, Despres, Scuderi

This Year: Letang, Maata, Cole, Dumoulin, Lovejoy, Scuderi

The cold reality is that those groups really can’t even be compared. There has been a significant decline in the puck-moving quality of the defencemen this year.

Quite frankly Rutherford never gave Johnston a fair chance to implement the system he was brought in for during this season. Johnston’s system could not work with the defensive corps he was given.

Looking to create more offence was a completely fair goal this offseason for Rutherford, but he went about it in completely the wrong way. Big and flashy, no matter how fun it is, doesn’t always work. It often does not work, in fact.

This is not to excuse the mistakes and decisions that Johnston has made this year. I still do believe that the firing was the way to go. This team needs a shake-up.

But the reality is, after the offseason plan executed by Rutherford the firing of Mike Johnston was an inevitable end to their relationship.