When Jim Rutherford was hired as General Manager of the Pittsburgh Penguins on June 6th, 2014, he was tasked with rebuilding a very broken Penguins team assembled by Ray Shero. Given the Penguins history of being cap ceiling team in the Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin era, and one that should be contending for the Stanley Cup every year, they didn’t have the time for a long rebuild. His job, essentially, was to rebuild on the fly, while still putting a competitive team on the ice that could try and win a Stanley Cup.
That wasn’t possible with the team as constructed at the time -- one littered with below average players like Craig Adams, Joe Vitale, Brian Gibbons, Taylor Pyatt, and Deryk Engelland.
It took a lot of wheeling and dealing in a short amount of time, but the Penguins won a Cup last summer, and are now in position to try and win another one. Let’s look back through his tenure at the trades he made and analyze his time here.
Getting an Early Start on Trading
Just over 3 weeks into the job as GM, Jim Rutherford made a splash at the 2014 NHL Draft, trading James Neal for Patric Hornqvist and Nick Spaling.
This trade came under fire at the time, considering that would and will be the case any time that a former 40-goal scorer is traded away. For the Penguins, it was as much about the character surrounding the team and locker room as it was the goal scoring. In Patric Hornqvist, the Penguins had acquired a different type of player, and one who changed the way the team played — he brought a relentless style.
Patric Hornqvist represents the one case where ‘intangibles’ are real -- where his attitude and his style of play changed the team dynamic and the way they played the game. I don’t think it’s a stretch to suggest that the Penguins don’t have what it takes to win the Stanley Cup last year without Hornqvist’s presence.
Trading Assets to Flip Them Later On
Early on the 2014-15 season, Rutherford made his first trade, sending defensive prospect Philip Samuelsson to the Arizona Coyotes in exchange for Rob Klinkhammer and a conditional 5th-round pick.
Less than a month later, the Penguins would flip their return (Klinkhammer) and package it with a 1st-round pick, sent to the Edmonton Oilers in exchange for David Perron.
Nearly a year later, this trade sequence would come full circle when the Penguins traded David Perron, who was going to become an unrestricted free agent, along with Adam Clendening, who was acquired in a different trade. They were traded together to the Anaheim Ducks in exchange for Carl Hagelin, who would go on to become an integral piece in the Penguins run to winning the Stanley Cup.
This would not be the only trade between the Penguins and the Blues that season, however. The two teams would also make a deal later on, exchanging Robert Bortuzzo for Ian Cole, with the Penguins sweetening the pot with a 7th-round draft pick.
One of Rutherford’s most criticized moves came at that trade deadline as well, when Ben Lovejoy was acquired from the Anaheim Ducks for Simon Despres.
It’s sad the way it has progressed for Despres, as he was showing a lot of promise before he had a concussion that derailed everything for him, and has kept him from playing this entire season.
Rutherford’s worst move, in my opinion, came at this trade deadline as well, when the Penguins traded a 2nd-round and a 4th-round pick to the Toronto Maple Leafs (while also discarding the worst hockey player I’ve ever seen play for the Penguins — Zach Sill) in exchange for Daniel Winnik.
Leading up to this trade, Winnik to Pittsburgh had been rumored, all his stats and whatnot passed the sniff test....but it just didn’t work out. That playoff series against the Rangers in 2015 was just a tire fire in general. It was a mess in part thanks to the poor timing of some injuries and some mismanagement of the salary cap by Rutherford that had the Pens playing with 5 defensemen. Despite it not being an issue with why that season didn’t work out, that trade definitely leaves a bad taste in your mouth, when multiple assets were dealt for a player that didn’t really do a whole lot -- and when it came at a time that the Penguins were desperate for a youth movement and jonesing for draft picks..
“Go Sell Ice Cream”
Not a trade...well, technically not a hockey trade — but it was a trading of words, and perhaps Jim Rutherford’s greatest moment as GM of the Penguins
Ahhhhh, the 2015-16 Season, otherwise known as The Year of Jim Rutherford. Seriously. Everything comes up Rutherford.
Phil Kessel is a Pittsburgh Penguin
July 1st, 2016. Phil Kessel. The Penguins appeared to be in on trading for Brandon Saad just what, a day earlier? That didn’t happen. Now, Phil Kessel, is playing for the Pittsburgh Penguins in a blockbuster trade that stole all of the free agent signing day news headlines.
Trading for Phil Kessel, without giving up Derrick Pouliot or Olli Maatta, and giving up Kasperi Kapanen, Scott Harrington, and a 1st-round pick (which was lottery protected — a lesson learned when the Penguins almost missed the playoffs at the end of the 2015 season) just seemed impossible. And then we learned that the Toronto Maple Leafs were going to retain $1.2M of Phil Kessel’s $8M cap hit through the duration of his contract. You might think this might be the most impactful trade made during the 2015-16 Season. Not so fast.
Jim Benning is a Bad GM
Summer trades are always strange. After the draft and free agency, you don’t hear much of anything going on too often until training camp is about to roll around. But out of nowhere, the Penguins dealt Brandon Sutter and a 3rd-round pick for Nick Bonino, Adam Clendening (later dealt in the Hagelin trade mentioned earlier), and a 2nd-round pick.
Within six months time, Rutherford made 3 separate trades to acquire Kessel, Bonino, and Hagelin, and who would have thought that they would come to be the HBK Line helping the Penguins win the Cup?
Scuderi for Daley
It was a cold December night. The Penguins were getting throttled by the Capitals just 3 or 4 games into Mike Sullivan’s reign as head coach, but suddenly no one cared. The Penguins announced mid-game (which is super savage) that Rob Scuderi had been traded to the Chicago Blackhawks in exchange for Trevor Daley.
A lot of people, myself included, weren’t sure about Daley or what he would bring to the table, but all we knew was that it didn’t matter, because he wasn’t Rob Scuderi. Given just how bad Rob Scuderi had been and how useful Daley became for the Pens in their Cup run, this has to be near the top of the list of best moves.
The Worst Player in the NHL
Phew, Steve. Give us a little warning.
Anyways, it’s the trade deadline in the 2015-16 Season and Rutherford is looking for a defenseman, so he throws a 3rd-round pick to the Oilers for Justin Schultz and it all works out well.
Schultz became a very reliable player for Pittsburgh down the stretch, in part thanks to Sullivan’s usage of him — putting him in positions to succeed instead of setting him up for failure.
At the 2016 Draft, the Penguins parted ways with oft-injured Beau Bennett, sent to the New Jersey Devils, in exchange for a 3rd-round pick
When the Penguins were in need of a backup goaltender, they picked up Mike Condon off the waiver wire. Later on, when the Ottawa Senators also needed one, the Penguins made good usage of that free waiver claim, sending him to the Sens in exchange for a 5th-round pick.
Ok, so let’s take a look at that list of trades again, but moving the assets who were later flipped onto the side of what the Penguins gave up:
It would be very interesting to weigh each move in a vacuum, give it a grade or a ranking, or however you want to do it....but for me, it’s simple. What it comes down to is that 8 of the players that Rutherford traded for were on the roster and played key roles for a team that won the Stanley Cup, and that speaks for itself. Rutherford came into the 2014-15 season with a much different organizational mindset than the one that he was managing in Carolina, and didn’t have a very good year.
Luckily for the Penguins and all those involved and those who follow them, he followed up a bad 2014-15 season with a great summer leading into the 2015-16 season, coming away with a Stanley Cup and a GM of the Year Award. He swung a few deals that will forever be remembered by Penguins fans for putting the pieces together that were needed to bring another championship to Pittsburgh.
It’s hard to say or predict what the Penguins are going to do within the next week with the trade deadline looming, but I personally feel like Rutherford’s got something brewing that he might come through with, and knowing him, it could be something bigger than we expect.
One thing that we know for sure — if the man says he’s in the mood for some Chicken Lettuce Wraps or some Kung Pao Shrimp, just grab a menu and prepare to dig in for the long haul, because something will be in the works for sure.