When the news dropped that now former Penguins General Manager Jim Rutherford was resigning from his position, the immediate reaction was shock, that goes without saying.
In a world where the news cycle is constant, there isn’t a cool down period — the immediate reactions and instantaneous takes are where we live now, whether you like it or not.
We live in a time where the conversations of who is the GOAT in any given league or sport are discussed on what seems like a daily basis with goalposts constantly being moved to make things fit where people want them to fit.
So that begs the question: What is Jim Rutherford’s legacy in Pittsburgh?
Critics of the former GM may jump out to argue that his bad trades, his propensity for having an itchy trade finger, free agency blunders or his having left the Penguins prospect pool particularly empty all being part of that legacy. Perhaps all of the above in one cumulative answer could be argued.
But for me, his legacy is simple. It can be defined in one photo.
The Penguins as an organization have won the Stanley Cup five times in 54 years. Two of those five championships came during Rutherford’s 6+ year tenure in Pittsburgh. That is his legacy.
Rutherford came to Pittsburgh in the summer of 2014, tasked with re-tooling a team that ownership (and the whole hockey world for that matter) knew was capable of winning another championship after having won one just five years prior. This was a team that had Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin, and Kris Letang. Success should have been more prevalent than it was.
He got to work quickly, bringing in fresh blood with new free agents, making splash trades like swapping James Neal for Patric Hornqvist, citing that the team needed some changes made to its character. One could argue that this, Rutherford’s first big move, was one of his most impactful.
Flash forward to July 2015. Rutherford’s biggest move. Pulling the trigger on bringing Phil Kessel to Pittsburgh. No one needs to be reminded of Kessel’s success during his time with the Penguins. The splash move acquiring Kessel was paired with smaller moves — shrewd moves like bringing in Nick Bonino from Vancouver in exchange for Brandon Sutter.
Flipping asset after asset, moving a 1st round pick for David Perron, then flipping Perron for Carl Hagelin.
Building out the 2016 and 2017 Stanley Cup winning teams in retrospect feels like it was built with a bunch of tiny little pieces. Trading Rob Scuderi for Trevor Daley, moves like trading for a veteran like Ron Hainsey, bringing Ben Lovejoy back into the mix, and relying on the youth at the time like Bryan Rust, Matt Murray, Conor Sheary, and Tom Kuhnhackl.
The near four years since the Penguins won the Stanley Cup have not gone swimmingly for the team, there is no denying that.
Rutherford seemed to be thrown off course by Tom Wilson and the Washington Capitals. He made moves to bring in players like Ryan Reaves, made comments that seemed to get Jamie Oleksiak beat up, went on a long hunt to try and replace Nick Bonino and not having any luck doing so, and had an unprecedented run of signing and trading for very bad defenseman.
With all of that said, and not even broken down in as much detail as it could be, at the end of the day, success in sports is measured in one category —winning. At least for fans. Maybe not all fans, but at least for me. Rutherford’s decisions were key to steering the Penguins to accomplish two titles, in back-to-back form, a feat that had not happened in the NHL for almost 20 years.
This isn’t a criticism of those who may place higher value on other aspects related to the game or the organization, to each their own.
But to think that Rutherford’s legacy can be viewed as anything other than a success after winning back-to-back championships in 6+ years is something I personally won’t entertain. The banners will hang forever.
Go and ask a fan of a team that has not won a championship in their lifetime what they would give to see it happen, let alone to see it happen twice in consecutive years. That shouldn’t be likely, and for me, will never be forgotten.
Thanks for the two Stanley Cup victories.