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Jim Rutherford wanted to get Marc-Andre Fleury back. Like really, really wanted him.

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The former Penguins GM tells The Athletic just how much he wanted to get Marc-Andre Fleury back in 2020...And...it’s really something else

San Jose Sharks v Vegas Golden Knights Photo by Ethan Miller/Getty Images

If you haven’t seen it yet, Josh Yohe’s latest chat with former Penguins general manager Jim Rutherford is really incredible.

The nuggets on Phil Kessel are great, but it’s the talk about Marc-Andre Fleury that will really make your jaw drop.

The Penguins, meaning Rutherford, really wanted to get Fleury back in 2020. How much:

  • Rutherford admits he broke an unwritten rule among GM’s to contact Vegas manager Kelly McCrimmon during the Golden Knights playoff run about Fleury when the veteran was being benched for Robin Lehner. Rutherford was that eager to get to the front of the line if Vegas was going to trade him. Typically a GM of a team out of the playoffs wouldn’t be in touch with an active team about an NHL roster player.
  • Rutherford said part of the reason why the Pens bought out Jack Johnson was to clear salary cap space to make the financials work to re-acquire Fleury and his $7.0 million cap hit.
  • Rutherford was willing to pay a heavy price to get Fleury back. With a bit of a bombshell of a quote in saying, “[I was] very willing to give a lot [in a trade] to get him, too. What I think is a lot and what the other team thinks is a lot may be two different things. I wasn’t looking at it as them giving him away. I was certainly willing to pay the price to get him back. I tried.”

It’s also important to stop and point out that Rutherford also acknowledged that the talks with Vegas never were “serious”. As it has come out, the Golden Knights had zero interest in trading MAF, starting with their owner flat out declaring that the team wasn’t going to move on from him, despite the salary situations with Fleury and re-signing Lehner to a big money deal.

Also, some of what Rutherford says doesn’t quite add up, or has a very short window before plans changed and he moved on. While the Pens saved a little over $2.0 million on the salary cap this season by buying out Jack Johnson, within 10 days later they gave almost all of that savings, $1.5 million to Cody Ceci to fill a similar third pair defensive defenseman role. (Though to Rutherford’s credit, this fit and signing has worked out a lot better than his earlier signing). So the idea that the Pens cleared a lot of space or spent a lot of time to get Fleury back certainly did not last very long into the off-season.

The other quite shocking aspect is the quote that Rutherford was willing to “pay the price” to get MAF back. A 36 year old goalie who had just been benched the earlier playoff. And considering that Vegas didn’t want to trade Fleury, what “a lot” could have been is dangerous to think about.

Earlier in August 2020, the Pens traded their 2020 first round pick for Kasperi Kapanen. That’s about the time Rutherford was contacting McCrimmon. As a team against the salary cap, Vegas would need cheap pieces in return. Nothing is cheaper than a 15th overall pick that probably won’t hit the salary cap this season. It’s easy to imagine that Rutherford would have dangled that 2020 first round pick and/or prospects like 2019 first rounder Samuel Poulin or former 2018 first round pick Pierre-Olivier Joseph to tempt the Golden Knights. Rutherford didn’t directly mention what he was comfortable in offering, but he was open and comfortable about giving up “a lot” and the Pens really don’t have that much to offer, so it’s not too difficult to connect the dots.

It’s pretty remarkable to see a former GM so candid about attempted moves that were just a couple of months ago! Obviously that’s a reflection of Rutherford no longer being on the job, but it is still startling to see.

Rutherford also continues to dance around the exact reason of his departure from Pittsburgh, but again goes out of his way like he usually does to compliment Mario Lemieux. JR also reiterated that he believes Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin and Kris Letang should all stay in Pittsburgh, indirectly again pointing to the fact the GM didn’t leave due to an organizational dispute over any specific bombshell move but likely some sort of personal disagreement or difference that he didn’t or couldn’t resolve.

One move Rutherford really wanted would have been to bring back Fleury for this season. The financial ramifications didn’t line up, nor did the Golden Knights’ willingness to make the deal. But it’s very clear that when Rutherford was guiding Pittsburgh management that is was a priority.