Five years ago, the Pittsburgh Penguins and Jim Rutherford found themselves similarly down and out. Rutherford was out as general manager of the Carolina Hurricanes after a long stint where he helped established the sport in the market of Raleigh. Rutherford managed the ‘Canes to a Stanley Cup win in 2006, and another finals appearance in 2002, but he ended out of the playoffs for many years.
The Pens just felt stale in the summer of 2014. Unfulfilled. It seemed the Sidney Crosby / Evgeni Malkin era, one of success to win one Stanley Cup wouldn’t quite be legendary turn that two greats seemingly deserved. Their coaching and management hadn’t surrounded them with enough talent to be more than that. Worse, Crosby and Malkin were leaving the absolute height of their powers (neither have won an MVP or scoring title since).
Rutherford, then 65, thought the end was probably of his professional career.
“I was thinking about starting to take it easy,” he said in 2018 when he signed a contract extension. “Instead of working, five years ago, and I got the phone call from [Pens President] David [Morehouse]. That was probably the best phone call I got in my career.”
“If I had to mold out of clay what we needed at that time, I think he was the perfect fit,” Morehouse said. “He has an insatiable appetite for winning. I think he carries [owners] Ron [Burkle] and Mario [Lemieux’s] mission directly as they want him to. They respect Jim’s experience. They respect Jim’s decision-making. He brings people together. He understands the ebbs and flows, and he doesn’t panic.”
Rutherford had a lot of work to do, just look at the the roster from the Penguins’ last game in May 2014 under the Ray Shero regime.
There’s some raw material there, but that’s not a very inspiring lineup. The bottom-six is littered with poor players and too often journeyman were cobbled around the stars, to no avail.
Ironically enough the best lasting gifts Shero would leave the Pens came in the form of young players like Matt Murray, Bryan Rust and Jake Guentzel who had yet to make it to the NHL. Rutherford still needed to put his stamp on improving Pittsburgh, and he did so in short order getting them to the Stanley Cup in 2016 and 2017. Here was the lineup against San Jose just 25 months after Rutherford had taken over.
Other than the franchise centerpieces of Crosby, Malkin and Kris Letang plus Olli Maatta and Chris Kunitz, Rutherford flipped the whole team over. There’s a new starting goalie, added defenseman from Justin Schultz to Ian Cole to the development of Brian Dumoulin. Up front Rutherford added a useful role player and leader in Matt Cullen. He increased team speed with Carl Hagelin. A true net-front menace in Patric Hornqvist. Rutherford corrected a big mistake (Brandon Sutter) and turned it into a contributor in Nick Bonino.
And the masterstroke, Phil Kessel. The Pens found a way to get Kessel at 85% of his salary so he would fit and also without having to give up the team’s best prospects. Rutherford would be named the NHL’s GM of the year for all this wheeling and dealing in 2016. Kessel added the true extra dimension the team was missing from 2010-14 in the “lost” years and in retrospect may have been the difference between wining more Cups and not.
While Rutherford’s every move is critiqued and he’s surely made his share of mistakes, the Pens don’t win more and get to the next level without the guidance of Rutherford. As a result, he becomes one of just two general managers to win Cups with multiple teams in that role. And the first to win back-to-back Cups in the NHL’s salary cap era.
The Pens and Rutherford were both out of sorts five years ago and ended up being the perfect foil for one another at the perfect time. The end result is a manager with borderline Hall of Fame credentials ends up with more Cups and becomes a no doubter. And the legacy of players in Crosby and Malkin will go down in history as one of the most successful and accomplished groups of this (or almost any) generation.
As a result, tomorrow night in Toronto the hockey world will come together to honor Rutherford. The Pens are lucky and better off that he made it there.