Days after former Penguins GM, Ray Shero, was fired, co-owners Ron Burkle and Mario Lemieux met with Dejan Kovacevic of Pittsburgh Tribune-Review. The owners used two words repeatedly when portraying a vision for how they wanted their team to look. The words were “grit” and “character”. Co-owners Run Burkle and Mario Lemieux believed that the lack of locker room personalities and physical presence on the ice were the main reasons for the Penguins’ early playoff exits the past four seasons.
Jim Rutherford’s first major move as the Penguins new GM was to hire a new head coach. The hiring process took longer than expected when Rutherford’s first two choices decided to accept other offers, but Mike Johnston was eventually trusted with the position. The next two big events on the calendar in Pittsburgh was the NHL Entry Draft and NHL’s Free Agency. While the new head coach took a step back, Rutherford worked to create the image that Mario Lemieux and co-owner Run Burkle had painted for the Black and Gold.
At the draft, a high-skilled and unexpectedly available forward in Finnish Kasperi Kapanen was selected as the Penguins first pick, giving the organization some much-needed talent up front. The later picks, however, were not used on technically gifted hockey players. Instead, big, strong, hard-working guys with net-front presence and desperate board play were preferred. For example, fifth-round pick Anthony Angello was quoted saying ”I’d definitely say my big role is a physical-presence type of guy, where the defense are skating down and they look over their shoulder and say ‘oh no, there comes Angello, he’s going to put me through the wall.”
Of course, before Penguins even made their first pick a step towards the new image was taken when Jim Rutherford traded James Neal to Nashville Predators for forwards Patric Hörnqvist and Nick Spaling. Most people, including myself, raised their eyebrows at the seemingly lack of exchange the Penguins got for a former 40-goalscorer. However, it did not take long until it all made sense. James Neal was a part of the old image created by Ray Shero and Dan Bylsma and highlighted the teams’ struggles in the playoffs. Also, Neal gets his goal from a far while Hörnqvist and Spaling battle for them in front of the net. And those are the kind of goals you score in the playoffs. Hörnqvist was an assistant captain in Nashville, he is well-known locker-room guy, he has shown his goal-scoring ability in a mediocre team, and he is a right shot. The last part was emphasized by Rutherford, wanting to give his star centers Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin another option on the ice. In Nick Spaling, the Penguins got a hard-working player that can play both box play and power play and also does his share of goals. The Penguins got tougher, louder and an increase in goal-scoring potential in the playoffs within a matter of minutes.
The work towards the new image continued in one of the most crazy free agency days in modern NHL history. Former Penguin defensemen Brooks Orpik and Matt Niskanen were giving monster contracts, Deryk Engelland was way overpaid by the Calgary Flames, and even Joe Vitale and Tanner Glass managed to scramble together undeserved paydays. And out of nowhere, Jim Rutheford managed to get the best available defenseman in Chrisitan Ehrhoff at $4 milion for one year. The next three signings done by the Penguins echoed the owners’ words “grit” and “character”. Blake Comeau and Taylor Chorney were signed during the first day of free agency, while the former Philadelphia Flyer and troublesome Steve Downie was given a one year deal during Day 2.
Things are looking up for the Pittsburgh Penguins, even though they may eventually need another top-six winger. Chris Kunitz and Pascal Dupuis cannot both be up there if the Penguins are going to be back in the Stanley Cup Final come April. A few possible free-agent targets remains, although current restricted free agents such as Brandon Sutter and Nick Spaling are going to get new contracts before addition money is spent on any new players. In any case, there is a lot more excitement in the town of Pittsburgh this summer than it has been for a long time.