Let’s go back to the summer of 2014, shortly after the Pittsburgh Penguins were eliminated in the second round of the Stanley Cup Playoffs by blowing a 3-1 series lead to the New York Rangers.
General manager Ray Shero was fired. Dan Bylsma was the head coach in name only and just waiting for the new general manager to come in and fire him. And the Penguins were on the verge of a seismic shift in what their organization would look like.
I don’t know that anybody expected them to turn to a 65-year-old candidate in Jim Rutherford with a mixed — at best — track record of success. It was an unexpected hire, and the plan seemed even stranger.
Rutherford admitted at his introductory press conference that he only planned to be with the team for two or three seasons, and the expectation was that one of the army of assistant general managers the team had stockpiled around him (Jason Botterill, Bill Guerin, or Tom Fitzgerald) would eventually take over.
It was a bold, and maybe even bizarre, plan. But it was one that ended up ultimately working out better than anyone could have hoped, with Rutherford outlasting all of his apparent replacements.
Remember where the Penguins were in 2014 as an organization. They had just completed another disappointing postseason flameout, and even though they still had a core of All-Star (and superstar) level players in the prime of their career, there was a growing belief that they had already hit their ceiling. Expectations and morale were shockingly low given the presence of two Hall of Famers in Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin at the top of the roster.
Two Stanley Cups later, here we are, capping off the greatest era in the history of the franchise.
It was obviously a wildly successful era. But it was also a completely WILD era.
Rutherford hired two head coaches within his first two years on the job.
He ran the Penguins the way your most hyperactive friend runs their fantasy team. No trade is off limits, no move is too outrageous, no offer is too boring, no contract is too much.
He spoke freely and openly and did things the way he wanted to do them.
He defended his moves and his teams viciously (remember the Rob Rossi elevator incident? Or everything involving Jack Johnson?), and also publicly ripped his team when it did not meet his expectation (that radio show appearance a couple of years ago when he crushed everybody, and the post-bubble criticism after the Montreal series).
He paid whatever price he had to pay to get the player he wanted and did not give a damn what you or anybody else thought or how much it cost (Derrick Brassard, Jack Johnson, Brandon Tanev, Kasperi Kapanen).
He was basically a more successful, modern day Mike Milbury. It was never boring, it was always captivating, and you never knew what the hell was going to happen next.
The highpoint of the era was quite obviously 2016 when pretty much everything he touched turn to gold. The Phil Kessel trade, Nick Bonino, the Mike Sullivan hiring, Trevor Daley, Carl Hagelin, Justin Schultz, all of the call-ups, and building a team around the idea of playing fast and aggressively. Those moves added the missing puzzles pieces around the core to hang two more banners in the rafters. Every one of those moves was a masterpiece with everything falling perfectly into place. I do not even know if it would have been possible to plan it out that perfectly.
But the nadir of that was pretty much everything that followed and the unpredictability of the past three seasons.
The constant reshuffling of the roster, where close to 15 players were acquired and then sent away within a calendar year of their arrival.
The chain of events and assets spent that took them from Derrick Brassard to Jared McCann (it is A LOT).
The way he allowed Tom Wilson to build the roster by proxy.
Let’s talk about that for a bit. Because that, to me, is a defining point of the past three seasons.
Even before the Penguins won their second Stanley Cup Rutherford became obsessed with Tom Wilson syndrome and how to respond to his antics. It was the start of that Stanley Cup Final series where he was already planting the seeds for changing the makeup of the team to acquire people to “take care” of the Wilson’s of the league. That was a stunning revelation not only because it ran counter to the way that Penguins team had run, but also because it went against Rutherford’s well established and long-held view of the league (he has been anti-fighting for a while).
But Wilson burrowed into his head and suddenly everything was about push-back and getting tougher. That is what resulted in Ryan Reaves, and Jack Johnson, and a revolving door of players throughout the lineup.
That mindset, along with the constant roster shuffling and his willingness to speak, met at a confluence of insanity named Jamie Oleksiak.
Oleksiak was one of the many defense reclamation projects the Penguins took on by acquiring him from Dallas for a fourth-round pick.
During the playoffs that year Wilson took out another Penguins player by caving in Zach Aston-Reese’s jaw, and then refused to fight Oleksiak during the game. Rutherford took this personally and on more than one occasion publicly called out Wilson for not fighting. The next time Wilson and Oleksiak faced off, Wilson pummeled him in the ensuing fight and knocked him out of the lineup. As soon as Oleksiak returned to the lineup, he was traded back to Dallas for the exact same draft pick the Penguins originally traded for him.
It just seemed like it was no longer enough to just win, but to win a certain way.
That unpredictability continued throughout this past year.
Take the case of Kasperi Kapanen and Evan Rodrigues. Obviously Kapanen was Rutherford’s first draft pick in Pittsburgh, and then traded for Kessel (a great move!).
But it was another example of a previous roster move being undone, and came with the added bonus of Rodrigues.
Two years ago the Penguins traded Conor Sheary and Matt Hunwick (one of the many less-than-one-year-and-done players in Pittsburgh recently) to Buffalo to clear salary cap space.
That was followed a year later by trading Olli Maatta for Dominik Kahun, a moved that looked to be paying dividends. But Kahun also joined that list of one-and-done acquisitions and was traded to Buffalo to reacquire Sheary and Rodrigues at a time where it did not make much sense to acquire them. After both fizzled, Sheary was not re-signed and Rodrigues was included as a throw-in to re-acquire Kapanen. When Toronto did not tender him a new contract, making him a free agent ... he ended up back in Pittsburgh.
Then, just seven games into the season, it ended as unexpectedly as it began.
In the end, you have to look at the overall Rutherford era as a resounding success. They cemented their legacy as the best franchise of the salary cap era and won two championships and were a constant contender.
As bizarre — and maybe even frustrating — as the past three seasons were you can not take away the success.
It was just a very unconventional way of getting there, and it rarely if ever made sense.
It was also never boring.
Then as randomly as he arrived, he exited.