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Pens’ Conundrum: The Coach and the Culture

Try as he might, General Manager Jim Rutherford has so far been unable to change the makeup of his team as intended. It may, thus, ultimately fall on head coach Mike Sullivan to adjust the attitudes of players with a recent track record of resisting change for the greater good.

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The development camp the Penguins conducted this week revealed, among other things, the discovery of the next Matt Murray — literally if not figuratively.

They’re actually pretty easy to tell apart. One wears No. 30 and one wears No. 31. One is 6 feet 4 inches and 178 pounds; one is 6 feet 1, 195.

There’s also this: One is a two-time Stanley Cup champion. The other recently completed his sophomore season at UMass.

If only subsequent confusions and complications were as easy to resolve.

The biggest such head-scratcher currently plaguing the Penguins revolves around the culture change newly anointed Hall-of-Famer Jim Rutherford has been trying to facilitate ever since the Pens were unceremoniously swept out of the first round of the playoffs.

It’s going to take a lot more than dispatching Olli Maatta to make that happen.

Rutherford insisted in the immediate aftermath of the Islanders disaster that changes were in order. And he confirmed this week he’s determined to continue working to “change this team, like I’ve been trying to do for two months.”

The limited no-movement clause in Phil Kessel’s contract got in the way of one such intended adjustment. As for Evgeni Malkin and Kris Letang — the other two card-carrying members of the Culture Club no longer perceived as acceptable, along with Kessel — Rutherford had said it was “highly unlikely” either would be moved via a trade at last weekend’s NHL Draft.

All of which begs the question: How can the culture be significantly altered if Rutherford is for whatever reason unable to swing the trades he endeavors to make?

Rutherford answered it this week during a visit with Mark Madden on WXDX-FM:

“If we don’t, then Mike Sullivan is going to have to be hard on the players and, you know, demanding as to exactly what he wants, all the way through the season.”

Good luck with all of that, Sully.

The NHL, in most instances, just doesn’t work that way. The message hasn’t changed since Sullivan’s arrival, nor has the coaching staff’s intent: To not take the stick out of the hands of talented, creative and explosive players via too much structure. But it always included the caveat that those talented, creative and explosive players wouldn’t allow the Penguins to degenerate into a high-risk, defensively vulnerable team by too often forcing the talent, creativity and explosion issues.

At its core, Sullivan’s directive is for the players to make the plays that can be made and not to attempt what simply isn’t there.

We saw how well that worked in Sullivan’s first two seasons. We saw this past season what happens when the message is either garbled or ignored.

In the aftermath, it’s been reported by Josh Yohe of The Athletic that Malkin was at best disinterested and at worst insubordinate during a November video session that addressed, among other things, forwards’ responsibilities in the defensive end.

We’ve also heard Letang, during his group-exit interview in the wake of playoff elimination, insist “I’m not going to change the type of game I play,” even though the game he played against the Islanders was periodically cataclysmic.

And then there was Kessel, exercising his contractual right to decline a trade to Minnesota — a move that’s apparently in the best interest of Kessel much more than it is the Pens.

It’ll take a Herculean effort from the head coach if all of this keeps up. He got everyone on board with the program once, but having to do so again might be pushing his luck.

Sullivan’s task might ultimately have a lot in common with herding cats.

And that’ll demand a lot more than a mere second glance to ensure he’s identified the right Matt Murray.


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