Kris Letang has made a remarkable comeback this season. In 25 games with the Penguins before Mike Johnston was fired, he had one goal and 13 assists. He was lousy. Since Mike Sullivan took over as coach Dec. 12, Letang had eight goals and 18 assists in 19 games before Monday night when the Penguins played at Florida. He is playing like one of the best defensemen in the NHL.
Sidney Crosby has made a better comeback. Under Johnston, he had six goals and 13 assists in 28 games. He was awful. Under Sullivan, he had 16 goals and 18 assists in 25 games before Monday night. He is playing like the best player in the world.
Jim Rutherford has made the best comeback. His past three major moves — replacing Johnston with Sullivan and trading for Trevor Daley and Carl Hagelin — have been terrific. They might save the Penguins season. And his job.
I remember calling Penguins CEO/president David Morehouse the morning after the team was eliminated last season in five games by the New York Rangers in the first round of the Stanley Cup playoffs. It was the first season for the Rutherford-and-Johnston team, but there was speculation each could be fired. Morehouse assured me Rutherford and Johnston were safe, which probably doesn’t mean much to Johnston these days. But it wasn’t outrageous to think Rutherford could be fired. His final five teams with the Carolina Hurricanes had missed the playoffs and his first Penguins team was bounced out quickly. He had mismanaged the salary cap so badly that the Penguins often had to play down the regular-season stretch with five defensemen.
Absolutely, Rutherford could have been in trouble.
I thought the same thing when Johnston was fired with the Penguins off to a 15-10-3 start that seemed worse because of their boring, uninspired style of hockey. Rutherford hired Johnston, didn’t he? I’m still convinced Rutherford will be gone if the team fails to make the playoffs this season. The Penguins were in fifth place in the Metropolitan Division going into Monday night and, worse, in ninth place in the Eastern Conference, out of the playoff picture. There are no guarantees with 27 regular-season games left.
But Rutherford has put the Penguins in a much stronger position with his moves. The players — notably, Crosby and Letang — have responded to Sullivan, who deserves much credit. There is a greater energy around the club, a greater sense of urgency. The Penguins started 0-4 under Sullivan but were 13-5-4 since then, going into the Florida game.
Rutherford traded with the Chicago Blackhawks for Daley Dec. 14, the day of Sullivan’s first game as coach. Daley skates so much better than Rob Scuderi and is a better puck-moving defenseman. He had four goals and six assists in 25 games with the Penguins before Monday night but scored 16 goals last season with the Dallas Stars. He also has been solid on the penalty-kill, which is Scuderi’s strength. Scuderi hasn’t exactly wowed them in Chicago, playing in just one of six games this month before Monday night.
Getting Hagelin from the Anaheim Ducks Jan. 16 for David Perron and Adam Clendening was an even better move by Rutherford. Hagelin’s incredible speed, on-ice vision and hockey sense brought out the best in Phil Kessel and Evgeni Malkin on a potent line before Malkin missed the past six games with an undisclosed injury. Hagelin had one goal and six assists in 11 games with the Penguins before Monday night, but that’s not the statistic that stands out about him. The team was 8-3 with him in the lineup.
The Hagelin-for-Perron trade isn’t as lopsided as the Daley-for-Scuderi deal. Perron has played well with Anaheim with five goals and six assists in 11 games before Monday night. But the Penguins aren’t complaining. Hagelin is a better fit than Perron, who had just four goals and 12 assists in 43 games before the trade, none in his final 19 with the team.
The NHL trade deadline is Feb. 29. Rutherford’s history indicates he will be active before then. It’s nice to think he will be able to get a better, tougher defenseman to strengthen the Penguins’ back end.
Rutherford is on a roll.
Ron Cook: firstname.lastname@example.org. Ron Cook can be heard on the “Cook and Poni” show weekdays from 10 a.m.-2 p.m. on 93.7 The Fan.
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