When the Pittsburgh Penguins hired Jim Rutherford to be their general manager before the 2014-15 season it was not expected to be a long-term position.
The assumption at the time was that he would be an experienced, stabilizing presence to help change the direction of a team that had been falling short of expectation in the playoffs and eventually pass the torch on to one of the three(!) assistant general managers the team was employing at the time — Jason Botterill, Tom Fitzgerald, or Bill Guerin.
All of them were seen as potential GM’s, whether it be in Pittsburgh or somewhere else.
It was an unorthodox set up, and there was reason to have some doubts about it at the time (too many cooks in the kitchen?), but it is difficult to argue with the results that followed. After a rocky first year that was marred by salary cap issues and another disappointing postseason exit, the Penguins would go on to win back-to-back Stanley Cups and once again be one of the elite teams in the league.
I do not think anyone expected Rutherford to outlast every single one of them in Pittsburgh. We are very close to that reality as Guerin seems to be emerging as the leading candidate to replace Paul Fenton as the next general manager of the Minnesota Wild.
None of this is necessarily a bad thing of course.
It is good for the team to have the people working for you be in demand around the league because it is probably a sign that you are doing something right and are successful.
Success is good!
It is good for the individuals because it gives them the opportunity to take on bigger roles and run a team of their own, and no one should ever begrudge them from taking advantage of that opportunity. There are only so many general manager jobs in the league and if you have the opportunity to get one of them, you should go after it (except maybe if it is in Ottawa?).
If Guerin ends up getting the Minnesota job it means that this really will be Rutherford’s ship to direct for the foreseeable future, and that his vision will continue to be the one put into place. Yes, that is an obvious statement to make. He has been the general manager for several years now, outlasting even the most optimistic projections the day he was hired, and just recently signed a contract extension to stay in the position.
It is his team to build and barring some sort of massive collapse this season he is probably going to keep that position unless he wants to leave.
But while the general manager is the one that gets put under the microscope, gets the praise when things go well and gets the criticism when they don’t, the general manager is just one part of the machine.
The people around them still matter. They still help shape the conversation, identify the talent, negotiate the contracts, and help put together the vision of what the team will become.
The general manager has the final say, but everyone else is still part of the process. Now the “everyone else” part of that is on the verge of going through another significant change.
Another assistant could be leaving and the next shoe to drop after that will be Rutherford deciding who his next right-hand person is and who helps shape the conversation. Assuming Guerin leaves, the only remaining assistant general manager on the staff listing will be Jason Karmanos, a long-time executive with the Carolina Hurricanes under Rutherford’s watch.
All of this also means that the “heir apparent” is no longer in the organization in the event that Rutherford abruptly retires or (in some seemingly slim chance) would get fired.
There are a lot of opinions about the current state of the Penguins front office. I think there is plenty of reason to be critical of the direction the team has taken the past couple of years and there is every reason to be critical of a lot of the individual moves, especially as the voices around the GM start to change.
I do not know how much influence Botterill or Guerin had on past moves, and I don’t really have much time for the argument that assumes everything good was a Botterill move and everything bad was a Rutherford move (and it is not like there were no bad moves when Botterill was the assistant general manager — because there were). That is chasing your own narrative and confirming your own bias. But the reality of the situation is the front office is changing, and so is the look and shape of the team for both the short-and long-term.
It is also impossible to know what a person will be like as a general manager until they actually get in that position. For years Paul Fenton was seen as a general manager in waiting because he was the right-hand man of a successful general manager for a consistently good, sometimes Stanley Cup contending team. His first GM experience ended up being 14 months and a spectacular failure in every possible way. There is a segment of the Penguins fanbase that wants to give Botterill the bulk of the credit for the team’s recent success, but despite some strong individual moves with the Sabres has yet to build anything worthwhile in Buffalo and made one disastrous trade that helped send another team to a Stanley Cup. There is always a risk with the unknown.
The Penguins have been Jim Rutherford’s team for five years now and will continue to be for the foreseeable future.
But with Guerin’s potential departure to Minnesota this is the first time in those five years where we really don’t know could be next in line to take over control in the future, and we have no real idea what the voices around the GM will sound like.