PITTSBURGH — After keeping the roster largely intact over the past few seasons, Penguins general manager Jim Rutherford said Wednesday there will be changes this offseason.
The changes won’t impact the nucleus of a team that saw its dreams of a third consecutive Stanley Cup end Monday at the hands of the Washington Capitals, but Rutherford said change is necessary.
“I think it’s obvious that I’m going to keep an open mind to making some changes, and I will make some changes,” Rutherford told reporters. “I can’t give you a definite answer on who that’s going to be right now and exactly which positions, but we’re a good team. We will be a good team going forward.
“I think it is fair to say this will be a different-looking team by the time we open next season. It doesn’t mean there’s going to be drastic changes and a lot of changes, but there will be changes in the areas that will become necessary.”
While Rutherford is looking ahead, the setback against Washington has given Sidney Crosby & Co. a chance to put their remarkable run atop the league in perspective.
No team in a generation had won consecutive Cups until Pittsburgh did it last spring, and the Penguins went as far as the 1999 Detroit Red Wings and the Mario Lemieux-led 1993 Penguins in their own respective quests for a three-peat.
“I think it definitely allows you to appreciate how difficult that was, but also to know we were that close to moving on too; that’s the difficult part,” Crosby said Wednesday as the Penguins packed up for the summer.
“I think it definitely gives you a greater appreciation how many times it could have went the other way on a pretty good run.”
The margin is always razor thin in the playoffs. And the Penguins somehow found a way to land on the right side of things through nine playoff series across three springs.
Against the Capitals, however, the bounces — and often the energy — went the other way.
Twice Pittsburgh blew a third-period lead in regulation — something that never happened during the regular season.
Goaltender Matt Murray was usually crisp but not dominant. The scoring depth that made the Penguins an impossibly tough out vanished this time around. Evgeni Malkin and Phil Kessel did not register a point at even strength against Washington.
So were Bryan Rust and Conor Sheary, who played beyond their years and scored pivotal goals in the process while ending their first two seasons in the league with parades through downtown Pittsburgh and the Cup in hand.
Not this time.
The Penguins downplayed the notion that they simply ran out of gas after playing more hockey than any other club over the past 32 months.
Maybe, but there’s ample proof the NHL has caught up with the team that built itself on lightning quick aggression when Mike Sullivan took over as head coach in December 2015.
Now it’s time for Pittsburgh to spend the offseason trying to get that extra gear back.
“We’re a good team,” Rutherford said. “And we will be a good team going forward. We’ll have a chance to win again. We have the nucleus to do that, and we also have the pieces in place that are players that other teams are going to want that we’re going to be able to make those changes.”
How? Let’s take a look back and a look ahead while the Penguins spent the rest of the playoffs watching the pursuit of the Cup on TV, if they bother watching it at all.
DINGED UP: Pittsburgh, as is hockey tradition, had several players make a go of it in the playoffs despite undisclosed or non-characterized injuries that limited their effectiveness. The group includes Kessel, Malkin and Brassard. Kessel picked up a career-high 92 points while playing in every single game for the eighth straight season, but he had just one goal in 12 playoff games. Sullivan allowed that Kessel was dealing with a health issue but added, “It was nothing significant, I can tell you that.”
Penguins rookie Zach Aston-Reese, who broke his jaw and suffered a concussion following an illegal hit by Washington’s Tom Wilson in Game 2 and is currently eating lots of ice cream, sidestepped when asked if the three-game suspension Wilson received was enough but does feel it was a positive step.
“It’s something I guess they’re trying to get rid of, and I think moving forward, guys need to be a little more aware and have more control of their body when they go in and have hits like that,” Aston-Reese said.
SPRING SPRONG?: Pittsburgh kept forward Daniel Sprong in the minors for most of the year, and he responded by scoring a club-rookie record 32 goals for Wilkes-Barre/Scranton. It didn’t earn him a promotion during the postseason. That likely won’t be the case next season, when the 21-year-old will be given every chance to make the team out of camp.
“He will be a regular on our team,” Rutherford said.
So will Rutherford. The 69-year-old GM famously said he might only be around a handful of seasons when he took over in the spring of 2014. Now it appears he’s not headed anywhere.
“I think the best answer is, I may be around longer than you guys,” he said with a laugh.
Information from The Associated Press was used in this report.