How The Penguins Built a Monster Out of Misfit Toys

Jamie Oleksiak, Phil Kessel, Riley Sheahan

If there’s a sign outside of Jim Rutherford’s office it probably says something along the lines of, “Don’t want a player? I can fix that.”

I don’t mean this to be an insult to any of the Penguins multitude of reclamation project players. I say this because it shows the kind of player Jim Rutherford and the Pittsburgh Penguins want and how it differs from other teams.

Since the mid-point of the 2015-2016 season or so I’ve called the Pittsburgh Penguins “The Island of Misfit Toys.” I think the farther along we get in any given season the more obvious this becomes.

Take your pick of players not named Crosby, Malkin, or Letang – they all fit. Matt Murray had a horrible Major Junior career. They took a chance on him with a midround pick and he’s a two-time Stanley Cup Champion. For that fact, look at a lot of their best homegrown players and you’ll see third-round selections. That’s where Jake Guentzel and Bryan Rust were drafted.

Pick a name and the story’s similar. Justin Schultz couldn’t defend. Riley Sheahan scored two goals in an entire season. Jamie Oleksiak was just plain not good. Phil Kessel didn’t play nice with the media. The Penguins didn’t care.

To them, who you are in black and gold has got nothing to do with who you were before. What it is about is a concerted effort to become who you want to be.

I genuinely think one of the first things the team must do when these guys arrive is to ask this question, “what kind of player do you want to be?” For example: The Oilers wanted Justin Schultz to be Kris Letang. Justin Schultz will never be Kris Letang or Erik Karlsson that’s just not who he is. The Penguins now have Schultz emulating the styles of Karlsson and those like him. But without the high-pressured minutes (injuries notwithstanding). He’s better for it. More suited to it. He fits.

Phil Kessel was known to be surly with the media and painted as the problem in Toronto. But behind Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin? He’s a perfect fit. He’s Pittsburgh’s shelter dog as a sign at last year’s Stanley Cup Parade exclaimed. No one cares about his life before he got here only his 30+ goals this year. He can ignore the media all he wants. He’s more suited to this city. He fits.

Then again, players also know what happens if they don’t do what’s expected. It’s not so much about falling in line in Pittsburgh as it is in a lot of other places. It’s more about understanding the reality of your situation. If you don’t fit you won’t stick because there are five guys behind you chomping at the bit for your spot. It’s about having a drive and desire. A drive and desire a lot of players dubbed “reclamation projects” or who were undrafted know all about. It’s about understanding why you’re being asked to do the things you’re asked. It’s about accepting those asks and challenges. It’s not blindly following orders because someone told you to. It’s putting in every ounce of work knowing what comes from it.

This is probably best summed up in a meeting Mike Sullivan had with Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin when he first came to the team. At the time, the power play was abysmal. He asked the two-headed monster if they wanted to continue to play on the same power play unit. Obviously, the players said yes. Because for all that Malkin and Crosby love having their own lines they love playing on the power play together and playing with each other. Sullivan told them to prove it. He gave them a deadline to get the scoring going. It worked. That’s what he does. He asks players what they want to be then he holds them accountable. You can’t say I want to score goals and then not put in the work. Not with Mike Sullivan around.

That’s why it continues to work. They’ve built a culture that you can be what you want to be if you’re willing to work for it. Players who don’t walk the walk after talking the talk? Get traded, left unsigned, or sent down to the AHL. They gave Greg McKegg a shot – it didn’t work. But with Zach Aston-Reese? Conor Sheary? Oh it worked.

No one bats a thousand and that is okay.

But this idea that anyone can be a winner if they work enough. That’s the culture the Rutherford-led front office and Sullivan coaching staff has built. Buy-in, back it up with work, and the rewards come. They’re gonna make you do unglamorous things. They’re gonna make you bag skate occasionally. But, the legs feed the wolf and I’m not sure any team buys into their culture as much as the Pittsburgh Penguins.

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