Penguins Becoming a Destination Team Again

No, the Pittsburgh Penguins haven’t landed Jimmy Vesey, a highly touted NCAA prospect who’s currently mulling over offers from multiple NHL teams. However, they did sign Thomas DiPauli, a former Capitals’ draft pick who became a free agent out of Notre Dame earlier this week.

That in itself is a major step forward for this organization.

In recent seasons, the Penguins haven’t been considered a destination team for big name prospects or free agents. It was once assumed that playing alongside Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin would be enough of a draw but as we’ve seen, that simply isn’t the case. It isn’t due to a lack of effort by any means, as both current general manager Jim Rutherford and former GM Ray Shero both attempted to lure these names to the Steel City. Instead, it was the team’s reputation that pushed these individuals away.

Simply put, the Penguins didn’t look like a fun team to be a part of.

Year-in and year-out, Pittsburgh is expected to be a Stanley Cup contender. They’ve been under that microscope since Crosby joined the team but after their 2009 Stanley Cup win, they seemed to lose their mojo. Was it coaching? Was it the front office? Maybe it was the players, including the aforementioned Crosby and Malkin?

I tend to think it was a little of everything and honestly, it’s tough to blame someone for avoiding that sort of pressure and atmosphere.

Recipe for Disaster

Dan Bylsma better have the Pittsburgh Penguins ready for the Playoffs, or his job may be in jeopardy.(Tom Szczerbowski-USA TODAY Sports)
(Tom Szczerbowski-USA TODAY Sports)

Following their 2009 championship, the Penguins faced the worst stretch of injuries in recent memory. They were also derailed by poor goaltending and a lack of production from their top-tier talent in postseason play over the last five years. All of that added up to Dan Bylsma being relieved of his coaching duties and a change in management.

Unfortunately, not all change is positive.

Rutherford was hired and had a rough start to his Pittsburgh career. Hiring Mike Johnston to replace Bylsma behind the bench backfired and his roster – which was originally constructed using the ‘built for playoffs’ mentality and consisted of little skill but plenty of grit – was failing.

Those are the types of issues that will scare away most prospects and unrestricted free agents, despite having Crosby and Malkin on the roster. You aren’t going to get international transplants like Artemi Panarin if your organization looks that shaky from the outside. You won’t find yourself on many short lists when your team is playing defensive-minded hockey that’s thwarting their biggest strengths.

Can you think of any incentive whatsoever?

To be blunt, the Penguins were a team in desperate need of a culture shift, along with a major roster overhaul. Normally, those needs will spark the beginning of a rebuild but in Pittsburgh, Rutherford wouldn’t have any part of that. He improved the process, changed head coaches and found a way to rebuild on the fly.

The Penguins and their fans are reaping the benefits of a job well done.

Rise to the Top

I don’t think it’s possible to overuse this clip…

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Justin Schultz returned to Pittsburgh on a cap friendly deal, while Matt Cullen proclaimed his desire to play with the Penguins if he returned for another season and followed through on that promise yesterday. DiPauli chose Pittsburgh and while Vesey is still mulling offers and hasn’t signed as I write this, its public knowledge that Pittsburgh is on his short list.

Yes, Players want to play for this team again.

Give Rutherford credit for what he built. Give Sullivan credit for the culture shift and his ability to get everything he possibly can out of his roster and also, give Crosby and Malkin credit for proving they can indeed get it done when surrounded by a capable supporting cast.

And, enjoy this. As we’ve seen in recent years, it’s easy to take a team like this for granted. It’s easy to forget just how frustrating the past six seasons have been until you’re back in the same boat.