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Reasons behind Rutherford’s departure remain a mystery

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Why did Jim Rutherford leave the Penguins? No one really knows for sure

NHL Stanley Cup Final - Media Day Photo by Justin K. Aller/Getty Images

An NHL general manager deciding to just up and resign seven games into a season starting for “personal reasons”, is going to bring around shock. Because that’s a shocking turn of events. The follow-ups are only natural, especially when talking about a 71-year old manager in the midst of a global pandemic. “Why?” is the jarring question and a good place to start. Why would would Jim Rutherford just up and leave his job at a time when GM’s just don’t stop working?

Really, only a handful of people, including Rutherford and Penguins CEO and President David Morehouse know, and they really aren’t saying directly.

Fortunately all have made it clear that health and wellness is not an issue, at all. But, something did most certainly happen to push Rutherford to walk away.

“I wasn’t considering [resigning] at the start of the season,” Rutherford told the Tribune Review’s Seth Rorabaugh in perhaps his most transparent comments on the matter to date. “There’s reasons why I did it now that I don’t want to get into.”

Rutherford also told Josh Yohe of The Athletic, “But I’ll just say this: It’s important to me to leave the Penguins on a positive note, and that’s what I’m going to do. I’m not going to get into the details of the past couple of days.”

Rutherford has also made it clear he’s not stepping away to retire. He will assess his options in the summer about what his next step may be. He doesn’t sound like a person who is completely done in the NHL, just one that decided he was done with the Penguins.

It’s natural to be curious about what happened over the past couple of days to drive Rutherford to want to leave the organization. Reports out of Canada say Rutherford wanted to trade Evgeni Malkin but was rebuffed by his superiors. Some reports out of Pittsburgh citing anonymous sources are saying it was a Kris Letang trade that Rutherford wanted to do that Pens executives were not going to allow.

Is that true? False? We may never truly know. Rumors and unsourced tidbits fly around, sometimes not even maliciously, but it doesn’t make them accurate.

One thing to indicate there may not have been a big, dramatic trade or huge butting of heads between the GM and the ownership group is that Mario Lemieux was reportedly “stunned” by Rutherford’s decision, and indeed the whole organization was caught off-guard by the abrupt resignation. If there was a major disagreement or a situation where ownership was limiting the sovereignty of Rutherford as their executive Vice President and GM to make the moves he wanted to make, said ownership ought not be that surprised when the GM moves to leave.

Further, if the Pens were talking seriously with other organization(s) in other cities about a player the caliber of Malkin or Letang, almost certainly in this day and age a reporter from another town or a national source like Bob McKenzie or Elliotte Friedman or Darren Dreger would have been all over that information, and nothing to the sort has remotely been recently reported.

It’s not as fun as some dramatic, franchise-altering move but these “personal reasons” could be as simple as multiple factors adding up to sour Rutherford on the Penguins. He was in the last year of his contract, which expires this June. It’s reported that the Penguins were interested in extending his contract, but they certainly weren’t moving quickly on that front. Rutherford also wanted to leave on a positive note, getting the boot if the team under-performed this season or playoffs would not have been a fun ending for him to go through.

Second, Rutherford fired an assistant general manager Jason Karmanos in late October of last year. Rutherford and Karmanos have been very close personally, and even had been described more than once a father-son type of bond and relationship. Perhaps tellingly, Rutherford never further commented on WHY Karmanos was let go, which is in and of itself a sign that Rutherford might not have wanted to take such a step — because Rutherford commented on EVERYTHING. That he had nothing more to say about the matter speaks volumes about whether or not his management team was getting pressured from executives/ownerships to get some fresh blood and ideas in the mix.

And, just after the firing, there was word some of that fresh blood could be a “Friend of Mario” in Dale Tallon would be brought into the organization. Tallon is a former NHL general manager himself. Though it never happened, the firing of Karmanos and the flirtation of Tallon (a possible replacement with Rutherford in his final year of his contract) might be some of many straws that could build up on the proverbial camel’s back.

The organization has had other issues as well, such as a lawsuit filed by a former AHL assistant coach for an alleged unfair firing in the wake of reporting an alleged sexual assault by the former AHL head coach. There was also the matter of the Penguins organization being the only major professional team to accept a federal COVID loan, and the organization has made several moves to limit expenses in the past 12 months from furloughs to pay cuts to reductions on NHL player salary.

It remains unknown what, if any of the above factors may have weighed on Rutherford’s mind. It is also factual that: he was in the last year of his contract, he fired a very close personal assistant GM, he had to deal with reports of ownership wanting to hire a former GM, and there were stressors about the organization’s budget and finances in the last year. All of that, plus perhaps other unknown factors, start to paint a picture of a stressful and aggravating situation for a manager to navigate.

What actually happened in the past few days to make Rutherford want to step away? Unless he comes out and says it, we may never know the true reasoning behind his decision. Then again, Rutherford is scheduled to be on a radio show on 105.9 the X this afternoon, so he just may shed more light on why he made his seemingly stunning decision to walk out on his job at the beginning of a season. Knowing him like we all do, this probably isn’t going to remain a mystery forever.