Penguins GM openly questions coach Mike Johnston’s decisions

Pittsburgh Penguins coach Mike Johnston disagrees with an official during the first period of an NHL hockey game against the Ottawa Senators in Pittsburgh Saturday, Dec. 6, 2014. The Penguins won 3-2. (AP Photo/Gene J. Puskar)

Daniel Sprong is an 18-year-old forward for the Pittsburgh Penguins. Like many young scorers – he had 88 points in 68 games in Canadian junior last season – the Netherlands native has as many moments of questionable decision-making as he does dynamic offense.

But when you have the 26th-ranked offense in the NHL (2.31) despite a holy trinity of scorers up front, maybe you overlook those lapses for the offensive upside? Maybe if you’re Penguins coach Mike Johnston, you play Daniel Sprong again for the first time since Nov. 17, when he played just 5 minutes and 11 seconds?

A lot of Penguins fans and media have asked that question, and apparently so has the man that hired Johnston, Pittsburgh general manager Jim Rutherford. And now he’s asking why Sprong isn’t in the lineup through the media.

“I have been urging the coach to get him in there,” Rutherford told Josh Yohe of (subscription required). “We need him in there so we can get a better look at him.”

According to Rutherford, he wants to get a better look at Sprong before the 40-game mark, at which point his season would count towards unrestricted free agency. (The Penguins are already on the hook for the first year of his entry level deal.)

Rutherford was clear to Yohe about not being on the same page as his coach on this player being in the lineup: “Yes. I do want to see that. That’s why we kept him, to play him.”

And yet he also said -- after voicing his desire about a lineup decision to the media -- that “I don’t ever tell him who to put in there."

The comments came after the Penguins’ 2-1 loss to the Anaheim Ducks on Sunday night, their second loss in a row that dropped them to 4-4-2 in their last 10. They’re one point out of a playoff seed and now have a goal differential of minus-1, despite having surrendered the third-fewest goals against in the conference.

It’s rare that a general manager would be forthright regarding a lineup dispute with his coach, even when that general manager is as unfiltered as Jim “Ice Cream” Rutherford. To have it come now, as the Penguins continue to be unable to find their footing and Johnston’s seat is practically flame-broiled, is a particularly bad look. As The Pensblog wrote: “You can just smell a retraction on this one.”

Rutherford’s said a lot this season. Sometimes he’s been very “stay the course” with the Penguins as they’ve struggled, confident they could play out of it. In speaking to Yohe about the necessity of “new blood” in the lineup, however, he sounded a bit more alarmist:

“Well, we’re going to have to do something to change things up,” he said. “We have underachieved. We’ve definitely underachieved. We’re in a position where we shouldn’t be right now, and we know it. I am going to have to take a look at few things. Something needs to change.”

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Greg Wyshynski is a writer for Yahoo Sports. Contact him at or find him on Twitter. His book, TAKE YOUR EYE OFF THE PUCK, is available on Amazon and wherever books are sold.