Penguins GM Jim Rutherford is bullish on team's future

PITTSBURGH -- When Jim Rutherford took over as Pittsburgh Penguins general manager last summer, he stressed ownership wanted a "complete change in direction," one that would turn a talented if aging roster into one capable of once again lifting the Stanley Cup.

Less than 11 months later the Penguins are older, thinner and coming off their earliest playoff exit in nearly a decade. While Rutherford felt enough at ease on Tuesday to joke about his job status -- the 66-year-old deadpanned that he planned to be around another dozen seasons -- he knows a postseason run that barely lasted a week isn't what the club had in mind.

"We fell short of our goal," Rutherford said. "We fell short of our expectations. Obviously that's very disappointing for us all. So now we have to move forward."

How, exactly, is the tricky part. Rutherford and coach Mike Johnston were brought in to shake the malaise that settled in during the final years of Ray Shero and Dan Bylsma's tenure. After a hot start, Pittsburgh dealt with a seemingly endless spate of injuries and a highly publicized bout with the mumps.

Rutherford reacted by proactively trading away younger players and draft picks for more established veterans like David Perron and Daniel Winnik. All that tinkering, however, couldn't offset the loss of defensemen Christian Ehrhoff and Kris Letang to ultimately season-ending concussions. Sidney Crosby and a hobbled Evgeni Malkin needed all 82 games to qualify for the playoffs and went down to the New York Rangers in five taut games, each decided by a single goal.

Crosby and Malkin reaffirmed their commitment to the team in the aftermath and Rutherford was quick to defend the play of his two superstars, particularly Crosby, whom Rutherford said took "a big step forward" by developing his all-around game.

Pittsburgh's problem, however, isn't Malkin or Crosby -- who both finished in the top 20 in points -- but the team's inability to find the right combination of forwards to surround them with. Patric Hornqvist made an immediate impact after being acquired in a trade with Nashville during the 2014 NHL draft, but Perron fizzled after a hot start and Chris Kunitz's 17 goals were the fewest during a full season in his 11-year career.

Kunitz will be 36 before the start of next season and Pascal Dupuis is already there. When both were healthy early in the season, the Penguins hummed along. Then Dupuis left with a blood clot and Kunitz's production declined sharply. While Rutherford believes Kunitz can bounce back, Rutherford also knows Pittsburgh needs to get younger and faster. Rutherford admitted offering older players buyouts isn't out of the question.

"I don't want to suggest I'm giving up on some of these older players because they can still contribute," Rutherford said. "But everything will be in the mix when we look at trying to make the team better."

The best chance at providing upgrades is likely to come via trade considering the weak free-agent class, but the Penguins aren't exactly overflowing with assets after several years of dealing prospects in the so-far-fruitless pursuit to bookend the Cup they won in 2009.

A youth movement won't be a problem on defense, if only because the Penguins will have no choice.

Veteran Paul Martin will hit free agency and is probably priced out of Pittsburgh's budget. Ehrhoff's contract is up and his health and expense remain an issue. Olli Maatta's promising season was cut short first by surgery to remove a cancerous tumor and then a shoulder injury. Ian Cole, brought over from St. Louis at the deadline, revived his career with some steady play down the stretch.

Throw Brian Dumoulin and Derrick Pouliot in the mix along with Maatta and the Penguins have three promising blueliners who will be 24 or younger next fall to throw out there with Letang. Marc-Andre Fleury's brilliant play in net kept the Penguins competitive and while Johnston's puck-possession attack never really came to fruition because of a lineup that constantly needed to be juggled, Pittsburgh proved adept at playing in the kind of tight, low-scoring games that proliferate this time of year.

The next step will be finding a way to win them. The Penguins led for about 60 of the 314 minutes they played against the Rangers. That's not nearly good enough for a group that features two of the world's best players, and Rutherford knows it. He reiterated he has "100 percent" support from the ownership. For now at least.

"I'm disappointed in what happened this year, but I think we had a pretty good team," Rutherford said. "If we had a healthy team, I would feel very comfortable with the moves that were made."