Pitts­burgh play­ers could pay the price for squad’s slump

San Francisco Chronicle Late Edition - - NHL - Ross McKeon is a free­lance writer. Twit­ter: @rossm­ck­eon

Still at least a week away from com­plet­ing the first quar­ter of the sea­son, teams are not wait­ing as long as in the re­cent past to make some hard de­ci­sions.

On Sun­day, the Kings fired head coach John Stevens and two days later, the Black­hawks jet­ti­soned widely re­spected Joel Quen­neville. Los An­ge­les and Chicago com­bined to win five of six Stan­ley Cups be­tween 2009 and ’14, but both missed the play­offs last sea­son. Now, an­other peren­nial pow­er­house — Pitts­burgh — is get­ting im­pa­tient up top.

Gen­eral man­ager Jim Ruther­ford took to the air­waves Wed­nes­day with a blunt assess­ment of his team that takes a five-game los­ing streak into Sat­ur­day’s game against Ari­zona. This is the same Pitts­burgh team that stood 6-1-2 af­ter nine games, and cer­tainly not far re­moved from back-to-back Cups in 2016 and ’17.

“Has this team been to­gether too long? It’s some­thing I al­ways have to watch for,” Ruther­ford said on his bi-weekly ra­dio show. “When do you have to make those changes? The play­ers are do­ing ev­ery­thing they can to tell me now’s the time.”

Ruther­ford doesn’t have a prob­lem with Pitts­burgh’s top play­ers — for­wards Sid­ney Crosby, Ev­geni Malkin, Phil Kes­sel and de­fense­man Kris Le­tang — but rather with young play­ers who might have ex­pe­ri­enced suc­cess too fast and dis­play ten­den­cies to wait for their high-pro­file team­mates to get the job done.

Ruther­ford is a savvy ex­ec­u­tive who knows ex­actly what he’s do­ing by putting out a strong mes­sage. He’ll wait to see how it’s re­ceived, and if the play­ers re­spond in kind. He could have gone the Kings and ’Hawks route, but head coach Mike Sul­li­van is cer­tainly not to blame. There might be no one bet­ter to thank for two Cups than the ex-Sharks for­ward.

Ex­pec­ta­tions will be high in Pitts­burgh as long as Crosby is around, and don’t ex­pect him to go any­where. Peo­ple might for­get the Pens im­proved from a 58-point team dur­ing Crosby’s rookie sea­son of 2005-06 to 105 points in 2006-07 when Malkin de­buted. Pitts­burgh lost in the Cup Fi­nals in ’08, but pre­vailed a year later with a Game 7 vic­tory on the road.

To put into per­spec­tive, the Oil­ers would have to win the Cup this sea­son for Con­nor McDavid — con­sid­ered as the best player in the world — to match what Crosby ac­com­plished by the end of his fourth sea­son in the league.

Malkin, Kes­sel and Le­tang are signed through the 2021-22 sea­son with hefty bal­ances left on their con­tracts. Crosby’s 12-year deal signed in 2012 runs through the 2024-25 sea­son. Don’t look for any of those Pen­guins to move. If any­thing, Ruther­ford will look to boost his de­fense and sec­ondary scor­ing. He’s not thrilled with his goal­tend­ing, so there could be a shakeup there, too. No boo­ing: Com­mis­sioner Gary Bettman gains en­try into the Hockey Hall of Fame on Mon­day. The league has grown from 24 to 31 teams (No. 32 Seat­tle is on its way, too) since Bettman took the job in 1993. The NHL is a $5 bil­lion in­dus­try de­spite three lock­outs — in­clud­ing the can­cel­la­tion of the 2004-05 sea­son — on his watch.

Goalie Mar­tin Brodeur, right wing Mar­tin St. Louis, trail­blazer Wil­lie O’Ree, Cana­dian women’s player Jayna Hef­ford and Rus­sian Alexan­der Yaku­shev, who did not play in the NHL, will be in­ducted along with Bettman in Toronto on Mon­day. Got what he de­served: Turns out the Uber driver, who cir­cu­lated a video of un­be­knownst Ot­tawa Sen­a­tors dis­parag­ing an as­sis­tant coach and pok­ing fun at their poor spe­cial-teams play dur­ing the ride, has been fired. James Sparklin, a fa­ther of six, called his act “the dumb­est de­ci­sion of my life.” Not in the Stars: Top de­fense­man John Kling­berg will be lost to the Stars for at least three weeks af­ter un­der­go­ing surgery Fri­day for a hand in­jury sus­tained against the Sharks on Thurs­day. Since 2014, Kling­berg is sec­ond on the team in aver­age ice time (23:09 per game) and third in points (227). Briefly: A Kings fran­chis­ere­cord sell­out streak, in­clud­ing play­offs, reached 297 games be­fore end­ing Thurs­day. The streak started Dec. 1, 2011. … The Bru­ins have granted All-Star goalie Tuukka Rask a leave of ab­sence for a per­sonal mat­ter. He is not hurt, and not ex­pected to be gone from the team for more than a cou­ple of days. … Dave Tip­pett has with­drawn him­self for con­sid­er­a­tion for the job of ex­pan­sion Seat­tle’s first head coach. He’s more in­ter­ested in a front-of­fice role with the team ex­pected to be granted fran­chise sta­tus next month by the NHL’s Board of Gov­er­nors.

Gene J. Puskar / As­so­ci­ated Press

Things are not go­ing so well for head coach Mike Sul­li­van, Sid­ney Crosby (87), Jack John­son (73) and the Pen­guins.

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