Today our season recaps take us to the the architect of the 2015-16 Stanley Cup champion Pittsburgh Penguins, Jim Rutherford.
Age and Contract Status
Age: 67 (February 17, 1949). Signed a 3-year contract extension with the Penguins on July 1, 2016. Rutherford is signed through the 2018-19 season.
Well, Jim Rutherford had an interesting offseason to say the very least. After the Penguins were promptly defeated in five games by the New York Rangers in the first round 2014-15 playoffs, many criticized Rutherford, primarily for his management of the salary cap to close out the season, leaving the Penguins to play with only five defensemen for seven games. Injuries to defensemen Kris Letang, Derrick Pouliot, and Christian Ehrhoff did the Penguins no favors in bolstering the team for their matchup with the 2014-15 President's Trophy winners.
Rumors circulated that Rutherford would be fired after only one season, adding another name to the list of prominent figures that would be let go by a team that seemed to be in constant flux with no clear direction to a championship. Was the "window" of Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin's prime years closing faster than previously thought?
Then, July 1, 2015 happened. Looking to address the abysmal Right Wing depth that the Penguins had a season before, Rutherford wanted to help Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin by acquiring the one and only, Phil Kessel. By now, we know that the Toronto media had basically thrown Phil out of town themselves. Kessel was the one who was publicly punished by the organization for his "lack of commitment, work ethic and attitude." Whatever. At $6,800,000 for the next six years to play alongside two of the best talents of this generation? Sounds great!
GMJR would also go on to acquire Adam Clendening and Nick Bonino (Bonino Bonino Bonino Bonino!) for Brandon Sutter. Depending on how you watch the Penguins, you either loved this move or were absolutely confused by it, a common occurrence during Rutherford's tenure in Pittsburgh. The Pens were losing a 20+ goal-scoring third line Center. Sutter would go on to, again depending on how you see the situation, get massively overpaid by the Vancouver Canucks.
Eric Fehr was also brought in from Washington on a very team-friendly 3-year, $6,000,000 deal.
The one real question that remained: was the Penguins' defense corps good enough to not leave Marc-Andre Fleury on a deserted island? Only time would tell.
The Penguins would start the season by losing 3 straight. Sidney Crosby would not register his first point until October 20, with a 1-goal, 2-assist game against the Panthers. Crosby would continue to to go deeper into what some may consider the worst slump of his career. Was this the end of Sidney Crosby's era of dominance in the NHL? Did the high-profile injuries suffered earlier in his career finally catch up to him? Sidney Crosby was a ghost of his former self. The combination of Evgeni Malkin and Marc-Andre Fleury kept the Penguins afloat until the middle of December...
December 11 rolled around and the Penguins had finally come home from their West Coast road trip. They were 15-10-3, floundering in the Metropolitan division. The Pens were playing host to the Kings. By the end of the night, the Penguins would lose 3-2 in a shootout. Rutherford had seen enough. The next morning would alter the team for the rest of the season. Head coach Mike Johnston was fired, much to the delight of many fans. It's never a fun sight to see anyone lose their job, no matter what profession they are in. However, this change was desparately needed. His replacement was the head coach of the Wilkes-Barre/Scranton Penguins, Mike Sullivan.
Sullivan would change the philosophy of the Penguins. He put an emphasis on the breakout and transition aspects of the game and really let players like Crosby flourish, as he was not bogged down by various defensive responsibilities. Sullivan started his tenure as head coach by losing four straight games. It was not an overnight transition, but the Penguins were well on their way to changing their game and once again becoming one of the NHL's best clubs.
With a new head coach and new system implemented, the roster needed to represent this new era of Penguins hockey. The first move made to accommodate the new system was the swap of Rob Scuderi for Trevor Daley. Daley would come into an eventual top-four role and eased the previously mentioned transition game. The fact that the Pens were able get anything for Scuderi, given where he was in his career and with the contract he carried, was astounding.
Next up on Rutherford's roster-fix list was to get another top-six Left Winger. So, GMJR went out and got himself the lighting-fast Carl Hagelin for David Perron. Both players had struggled up to that point with their respective clubs. A change of scenery helped both players reignite their careers in the long run. Hagelin and Sullivan had a connection going back to Sullivan's assistant-coaching days with the New York Rangers, so it bears wondering just how much influence Sully had on this transaction.
The former Penguin goaltender was not done there. Rutherford looked to bolster the depth of the defense by acquiring Justin Schultz from the Oilers. Schultz, like Daley, was a smooth-skating, puck-handling right-handed defenseman whose career was in need of a serious reboot. When he arrived, Schultz said he regained his missing confidence. It showed in his play. He tallied 8 points in 18 regular season games. As the postseason began and progressed, Schultz landed on the third pairing with Ian Cole and would stay in that role up until the very end.
The Youth Movement
All of these trades don't completely fill out Rutherford's roster overhaul. The promotions of WB/S prospects like Scott Wilson, Bryan Rust, Conor Sheary, Tom Kuhnhackl, and rookie sensation Matt Murray highlight what an infusion of youthful, hungry players can do to a team with a heavy veteran presence. Each had their own role and all contributed in a positive manner, with some obviously contributing more than others. Matt Murray showed that he can handle the workload of being a team's top goalie, while Kuhnhackl helped give the bottom-six a facelift after seeing players like Tanner Glass and Craig Adams be relied on heavily and not produce tangible results.
A head coaching change, a roster overhaul, and a Stanley Cup championship doesn't happen without the help of a general manager. For whatever detractors Rutherford has, and no front office is perfect, there is no denying that without Rutherford's vision to change this team, Pittsburgh more than likely does not get its fourth title in franchise history without Jim Rutherford.
For the foreseeable future, Jim Rutherford will remain the general manager of the Penguins. Whether he stays for one more year or lives out the duration of the contract is up to him. The prized jewel and presumable replacement to Rutherford, Jason Botterill, is safe for now. Will Botterill continue to stay in Pittsburgh for the hope of one day becoming the general manager? Only he knows. But, for now, the Penguins are in good hands. They are retaining a very large portion of a roster that just won a championship, which is incredibly hard to do in today's age of the salary cap.
You may not agree with all the moves he has made or will make, but you have to accept Rutherford for what he is, old school. He still may use the "eye test" to scout potential talent, but being a general manager for over 20 years and only recently being introduced to the NHL's advanced metrics has been a hard thing to get used to for many front office figures around the league. However, hiring the mind of Sam Ventura, formerly of War On Ice, is certainly a positive development for the statistically-inclined.
Rutherford is a proven winner. He helped build the 2006 Stanley Cup champion Carolina Hurricanes and now has done the same with the Pens. Not too many GM's have a resumé quite as polished as Rutherford's. Penguin fans should not take what Rutherford has done for granted. All it takes is one dim-witted mind to take control of a team, only to run it into the ground.
GIFs of the Year
GIFs will be scarce in this recap. I'll let the words do the talking. Plus, it's pretty hard to find entertaining GIFs of a man who sits in a press box for 82 (or more) games. Unless your name is Mario Lemieux, in which case you can do whatever you want.
Feel free to vote in the poll below to grade Jim Rutherford's season on a scale from 1 to 10. Vote based on your expectations for him coming into the season -- i.e., 1 being "#Shero4Lyfe", 10 being "GMJR is da man!"