In the not-to-distant past, Josh and I used to run a blog called Penguins Sauce. In the aftermath of Brooks Orpik and Matt Niskanen going to Washington and spewing words to Yohe back around Christmas in 2014, we wrote a piece on the issues with showing loyalty in hockey and, in particular, Ray Shero showing loyalty to Dan Bylsma that ultimately cost both guys their respective jobs. If you’re adept at using the Wayback Machine, you can find that piece.
In the wake of Yohe’s latest piece, in which GM Jim Rutherford goes through mental gymnastics to defend Jack Johnson, we wanted to revisit The Problem in The Reality of Loyalty.
Below are excerpts from it, remodeled and repurposed for 2020. The overarching themes are the same, but the names are different.
All too often, loyalty is something you’re left trying to hold onto in the wake of destruction. The problem with loyalty is that it’s not tangible. It’s not real. And even if it were, you’re still in the wake of destruction. It means nothing. It gets you nowhere.
And the Penguins’ current regime has hitched its wagon to loyalty and rode it right into oblivion just like the previous one did.
After the defeat in Washington in 2018, Jim Rutherford was faced with a choice. He chose loyalty, but not to the skill that won him two straight championships.
He chose loyalty to dying arts and archetypes: heavy hockey and pushback. Gone were guys that could play fast and skill, but weren’t physical. Conor Sheary stands out among those names.
Then, there was Gudbranson, Reaves, and worse yet (because he’s still here), Jack Johnson. Guys that played a physical brand of hockey and nothing else; the polar opposite of speed and skill.
Now, we have Jim Rutherford hitching his wagon to Jack Johnson in a similar show of faith that Ray Shero showed by giving Bylsma a 2-year extension in the apocalyptic dystopia that was the space left after the Boston series.
Much the same, the Penguins got swept by the Islanders and eliminated by the 24th seed Canadiens in the two years Johnson has been here. Both of which were as avoidable as they were predictable.
And while many had questions for the way that Pens’ brass handled those previous firings (starting with Shero, and then allowing new GM Jim Rutherford to announce the Bylsma firing weeks later), the same questions take a different form when taking a microscope to some of Rutherford’s (and Sullivan’s) personnel decisions.
The answers to these questions have details and, just like the playoff defeats, the details don’t rearrange the results.
Loyalty is often held in high regard. But the type of loyalty we are talking about is poisonous loyalty. Loyalty that creeps into an organization and clouds sound judgment and decision-making to the point where it is toxic.
Ray Shero’s move to bring Dan Bylsma back after the Boston series was based upon loyalty, we presume. We can safely say now that that was the wrong decision. It ended with the Penguins bowing out of the playoffs early for the fourth year in a row.
Jim Rutherford’s and Mike Sullivan’s decisions to retain and deploy Johnson, respectively, also feels based on loyalty. They like the player, even in the face of the player offering no positive impact to the team when he’s on the ice. He’s “strong” and “a good team guy,” none of which describes his actual playing ability.
This all, too, ended with the Penguins bowing out of the playoffs early, in the first round, for the second year in a row.
The presumption that Dan Bylsma’s decisions to consistently play older players simply on the merit of experience was based upon loyalty still hangs over this team in the same sense that we find ourselves seeing the same story play out again.
All you need to do is replace the names.
Making a game decision on the basis of loyalty and experience over merit of production is the wrong decision. We saw it play out with Bylsma, burying less-experienced, but more productive players like Simon Despres for the likes of Doug Murray. We see it playing out with Sullivan and Johnson, burying less-experienced, but more productive players like Chad Ruhwedel and Jusso Riikola.
We don’t know the behind-the-scenes story as to why Ruhwedel or Riikola didn’t play over Johnson or Schultz against Montreal and, frankly, it probably doesn’t matter. The experienced guys, despite their plethora of warts, were always going to win out despite the results of the inexperienced guys being superior.
Experience does have value, but that value hits a plateau mark quickly when we’re talking about experienced guys that have hit their expiration dates of being serviceable NHLers. Someone inexperienced might surprise you if they get the chance- if they’re ever given the chance.
And just like Brooks Orpik being included in Shero/Bylsman’s Olympic squad, the same Brooks Orpik who would go on to lose his man in the slot as Jamie Benn scored the only goal to dispose of Team USA, we’re now talking about Jack Johnson losing his guys and watching the Penguins pick the puck out of the back on a regular basis.
Presumably, GMJR’s interview today was an effort save face, rather face the music that Jack Johnson is beyond repair. At this point, Rutherford is the only person defending Johnson against the mean old social media users.
And for Johnson, who you can’t necessarily fault for signing the contract, coming to Pittsburgh, or being a replacement level defender, but he repays this loyalty by actively crushing the Penguins.
Again, this is not Johnson the person’s fault. There is no doubt in our minds that he’s a great guy. But he’s also the victim of a coach that puts him on the ice and the victim of a general manager who won’t cut ties with him.
He’s the victim of loyalty.
Loyalty is a natural reaction. It’s what convinced us that Max Talbot was always going to be a Penguin. It’s what convinced us that Jaromir Jagr was coming back to Pittsburgh to pay his “debt” to Mario Lemieux after he had already made enough money to do anything he could imagine. And God knows, it’s the reason Mario Lemieux kept this team from going belly up and moving to Kansas City.
Loyalty can be the basis of good decisions, but in sports, the bad usually outshine the good. It prevents us from seeing what’s right in front of us.
And while loyalty’s not always going to lead on a path to destruction, it can when it’s the only tool guiding the way.
Loyalty to players like Jack Johnson will always net out negatively.
And if we’re not going to learn from our predecessors, we’re doomed to repeat their mistakes.
For the Penguins and Jim Rutherford, loyalty to this particular player is prematurely closing the Penguins window for a 4th Crosby/Malkin/Letang Cup.