Center Brandon Sutter expected changes after the Penguins failed to make it out of the second round of the playoffs and fell short of the Stanley Cup final for the fifth season in a row.
Still, he found himself taken aback by the extent of the upheaval — general manager Ray Shero and coach Dan Bylsma were fired, and all but one of the team’s unrestricted free agents left.
“To see Ray Shero get fired was an eye-opener, and then it was a snowball effect from there,” Sutter said Tuesday after he and the team agreed to a two-year, $6.6 million contract. He had been a restricted free agent.
Change wasn’t Sutter’s best friend last season. Injuries and coaching decisions left the third-line center with what seemed like an ever-changing cast of wingers, making consistency difficult. Still, he followed a regular season of 13 goals, 13 assists in 81 games with a strong postseason, getting five goals, seven points in 13 games.
Now, even though his linemates have yet to be determined after a lot of turnover among bottom-six forwards, Sutter, 25, is embracing at least one aspect of change.
“A change in the way we do things is probably good,” he said. “Sometimes, you just need a change. That’s what happened this summer.”
Sutter was quick to say that he wasn’t rooting for Bylsma and his staff to go — “I thought those guys were pretty good to me,” he said — but he’s looking forward to seeing what first-year coach Mike Johnston will bring.
He has spoken with Johnston by phone a couple of times but has plans to sit down with the new coach this week when Johnston visits Sutter’s hometown of Red Deer, Alberta, Canada.
Johnston has been trying to get to know the players in person when possible.
He spent part of a weekend in Pittsburgh with center and team captain Sidney Crosby last month and recently went to Moscow to meet with center Evgeni Malkin.
Sutter, one of the Penguins’ top penalty-killers, isn’t sure of what to expect from Johnston, who is partial to an up-tempo, puck-possession game that likely will rely less on long breakout passes, a staple under Bylsma.
“Hopefully, the system is something the guys will like. I’m sure they will,” Sutter said. “[Johnston] seems like a good hockey mind.”
Sutter doesn’t need an introduction to general manager Jim Rutherford.
While with Carolina, Rutherford selected Sutter 11th overall in the 2007 NHL draft and traded him to the Penguins in June 2012 as part of the Jordan Staal deal.
That familiarity, Sutter said, made negotiations a smooth undertaking.
“He’s done three of my contracts now,” Sutter said.
While there was speculation that Sutter might have been seeking a one-year deal and the Penguins a three- or four-year contract, two years was apparently a length both sides liked.
Under a one-year deal, Sutter would have been eligible for unrestricted free agency next July. Now that gets pushed back to July 2016.
“I definitely didn’t want a one-year [deal],” he said. “I don’t think any player really does. That’s a pretty quick turnaround.
“We started looking at something a little bit longer term, but dollars-and-cents-wise it was better to go for two years. I guess that made the most sense.”
It also eases back on the number of players who are eligible for unrestricted free agency next season, barring extensions.
Eight players fit into that category: forwards Marcel Goc, Steve Downie, Craig Adams and Blake Comeau; defensemen Paul Martin and Christian Ehrhoff; and goaltenders Marc-Andre Fleury and Thomas Greiss.
Sutter was the team’s final restricted free agent this offseason.
Given his $3.3 million salary-cap hit, there are now 21 players under contract for the coming season, with the Penguins sitting about $1 million under the cap.
That includes defenseman Simon Despres, who split last season between the NHL and the American Hockey League, but not goaltender Jeff Zatkoff, who is expected to compete for the backup goalie job with free-agent addition Greiss in training camp.
Rutherford said last week that signing Sutter likely would be his final big offseason move, although he would not rule out adding a free agent or inviting someone to training camp on a tryout basis.
Shelly Anderson: firstname.lastname@example.org, 412-263-1721 and Twitter @pgshelly. First Published August 5, 2014 12:00 AM