Well, this will be the last 2020-21 season in review on Pensburgh. We profiled the season that was for 25 players, a coach and the current general manager. But wait just a second — what better way to go out and wrap up 2020-21 then by looking at the former GM of the team?
Name: Jim Rutherford
Position: (Former) General Manager
Birthdate: February 17, 1949
Birthplace: Beeton, Ontario, Canada
Date hired: June 6, 2014
Date of resignation: January 26, 2021
Playing career: Detroit Red Wings, Pittsburgh Penguins, Toronto Maple Leafs, Los Angeles Kings
2020-21 Season Record: 4-2-1 (at time of resigning)
Story Of The Season
It’s still really shocking that Jim Rutherford, perfectly healthy, resigned seven games into the season of 100% his own volition. Just thinking about that sentence almost six months later it remains very difficult to believe and get around. There’s been a lot of rumor and innuendo about just why Rutherford stepped away, but no real accepted or corroborated public reason.
But, we know he did choose to walk away. At the start of a season. A few months after firing basically his right-hand man in Jason Karmanos, under similarly cloudy reasons.
It’s been a pandemic, it’s been weird. So ended the time of Jim Rutherford with the Penguins. But his fingerprints will linger on the Pens for YEARS to come for the decisions he has made, some good, some bad.
(We will consider everything from the end of the 2020 playoffs in August to January 2021 in this regard)
—Mark Recchi and Sergei Gonchar dismissed as assistant coaches, Todd Reirden and Mike Velucci named to staff…Was this a good change or a bad change? Not sure but it was change. Honestly I don’t think the assistant coaches made too much of a discernible difference, though Reirden replacing Recchi on the power play was important. And the PP in 2020-21 was better than 2019-20. Grade: B, I guess
— Pens acquire: Kasperi Kapanen, Pontus Aberg (KHL), Jesper Lindgren (SWE) from Toronto for 2020 first round pick (15th overall), Filip Hallander, Evan Rodrgues, David Warsofsky (8/25/20)...Rutherford often stated he wanted to get “younger and faster” in 2021, and Kapanen was the youngest forward, and maybe their fastest straight-line skater. Kapanen scored 30 points in 40 games and a 2.8 P/60. Some bemoaned giving up a steep price of a mid-first round pick and a mid-level prospect, but Rutherford made a shrewd move here — he did what he often did to trade future potentials for current sure things. The Pens benefited from this, Kapanen was a great addition, and at a decent $3.2 million cap hit that Pittsburgh only had to pay $1.86 million in actual dollars for last season, it was smartly and under-the-radar as a very, very favorable all-around deal. Grade: A
—Chad Ruhwedel given one-year contract extension for 2021-22 at $750,000 (8/27)...In context, this makes some sense: Ruhwedel played 41 out of 69 games in 2019-20. Rutherford was aggressive to get the veteran signed a year early for NHL league-minimum. Ruhwedel had always been a very serviceable player when called upon and was pressed into duty a lot. This wasn’t bad. Grade: B
—Juuso Riikola given two-year contract for 2020/21 and 2021/22 at $1.15 million cap hit (9/5)...This depth defenseman signing, however, didn’t make much sense. Riikola played 36/69 games in 2019-20, several at forward. Coach Mike Sullivan never showed much use or faith in Riikola, for whatever reason. Rutherford did here, for some reason. Riikola ended up on the practice squad, far from the team’s plans now. This was a disconnect, and unnecessary, though not painful. Grade: D
—Pens acquire: conditional 7th round pick from Minnesota for Nick Bjugstad. Pittsburgh retains max 50% salary ($2.05 million cap hit) (9/11)...After being too injured, the Pens couldn’t keep Bjugstad at his $4.1 million cap hit. So they traded him for conditions they knew would mean nothing, keeping $2 million of salary. Not great, but necessary. Grade: C
—Jared McCann signed to two year deal, cap hit $2.94m (9/18)...Pittsburgh avoided arbitration and got McCann on a bridge deal. It paid off, with McCann putting up 32 points in 43 games and a 2.4 5v5 P/60 that ranked only behind Kapanen for players with 20+ games. Grade: A
—Pens acquire: Mike Matheson and Colton Sceviour from Florida for Patric Hornqvist (9/24)...Looking to clear Hornqvist’s $5.3 million salary, Rutherford played to his pride, got him to waive his full NTC for a trade to Florida to get a much worse contract of Matheson ($4.875m for six years) and a fourth line plugger in Sceviour at $1.2m. Rutherford mistakenly said in the aftermath that the Pens saved money (he meant real money in 2020 salary, since Matheson’s pay last year was low) but they actually added to the salary cap for a year, creating an awkward discrepancy. Oy. This one will linger for years, and Hornqvist provided a net-front presence the Pens missed this year. Grade: D
—Tristan Jarry signed to a three year contract, $3.5 million cap hit (10/3)...The “goalie of the future” or maybe present was anointed with this contract. Jarry would finish 6th in starts and be fine in the regular season after a poor start, but had a brutal playoff. Grade: C
—Pens buyout Jack Johnson (10/5)....Correcting a mistake to give a marginal player a rich five year deal two years earlier. Johnson will remain as a scar on the salary cap until 2026. A buyout is never good and bittersweet, but removing the worst player on the team was needed. It was so avoidable though as Pittsburgh uses it’s first buyout since Shane Endicott in 2006. Grade: A (just for the buyout action)
—Pens acquire a second round pick (used on goalie Joel Blomqvist) and John Gruden from Ottawa for Matt Murray (10/7)....After signing Jarry, the other shoe dropped with the inevitable Murray trade. The Pens weren’t going to get more on this for selling low on Murray. Grade: B
—Sam Lafferty signed two year extension at $750k (10/8)...after a somewhat promising rookie season, a one-way deal for Lafferty. He wasn’t good in 2020-21, but the idea wasn’t bad. Grade: C-
—Free agent Evan Rodrigues signed one year $700k (10/9)....After Dominik Simon wouldn’t sign a league minimum deal, the Pens brought back Rodrigues, who they traded away six weeks earlier for league minimum. Wasn’t bad, wasn’t really good with Rodrigues netting 14 points on the season, but shuffling out to a non-factor by playoff time. Grade: C+
—Free agent Mark Jankowski signed, one year $700k (10/9)...Pens took a flyer on a former first round pick who had good seasons and bad in the NHL. Why not bet on a 26 year old for a second chance? Didn’t work on the ice, but for the signing and rationale, it was fine move in the managerial sense. Grade: C
—Pens sign Josh Currie, Anthony Angello and Maxime Lagace (October): Hey they needed Lagace in the last game and he came through with a shutout. Otherwise, just some organizational depth. Grade: C
—Pens sign free agent Frederick Gaudreau, one year $700k (10/10)...Didn’t seem like much at the time, and was a two-way deal for depth, but when injuries tested the depth, Gaudreau stepped up and found a niche for the playoffs. This ended up being a lowkey smart move, with no risk on a two-way deal. Grade: B+
—Pens sign free agent Cody Ceci, one year $1.25 million (10/17)...At first glance, dedicating almost all of the Johnson buyout savings on a reclamation like Ceci was very bad optics. But Ceci paid off in spades and was a solid player. If anyone in the league knew he would do this, Ceci wouldn’t have been a free agent for 10 days. Alas, even if this ended up better than perhaps anyone could have reasonably expected, credit where it’s due. Grade: A
—John Marino signed to a six year extension, $26.4 million ($4.4 cap hit) (1/2)...Before the season started, the Pens got pen to paper for Marino after a sensational rookie season. The contract doesn’t start until this season and runs through 2027. Marino had an uneven sophomore season, but if you’re going to bet, why not on a young puck moving RH shot? There’s risk, but it’s a worthy one. Grade: B+
Jim Rutherford had positives and negatives as a manager. He made decisions that were open, free-wheeling, emotional, reactionary. That’s not all bad. A lot of his bold moves over the years resulted directly in the 2016 and 2017 Stanley Cups. Many of his decisions will burden the team for 2021 and beyond with lasting reminders and financial impacts that will present challenges.
In the end, he left in a storm, but the team he built was pretty much the team (besides mid-season acquisition Jeff Carter) that won the division and looked very strong when they had health in March and April.
Rutherford will be a controversial figure with complex impacts and inputs on the Pens, guiding them through a pandemic which deserves more consideration than has probably been generally received. Some of it was good, some of it...not so much. But all in a style of his own, right to his very unconventional exit.
How would you grade what Jim Rutherford did for the Penguins in 2020-21?
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