Jim Rutherford has made his name in the NHL as an excellent general manager. Starting his management career with the Hartford Whalers in 1994, Jim Rutherford has known success and failure in his long tenures. With the Whalers, he helped relocate them to Carolina, where he entertained a few successful years.
His notable moves while acting as GM of the Hurricanes were signing Ron Francis in 1998 and trading for Rod Brind’Amour in 2000. He helped the Hurricanes with a Stanley Cup in 2006 while also leading them to 2 conference titles, 3 division titles, and 5 playoff appearances.
After his tenure in Carolina, Rutherford returned to Pittsburgh, where he was once a goaltender. Having played for the Penguins from 1970 to 1972, Jim Rutherford was familiar with the greater Pittsburgh area. In 2014, Rutherford took the helm of the Penguins organization and made his first prominent moves at the 2014 NHL Entry Level Draft.
For the Entry Level Draft in 2014, the Penguins had five selections, with only one player making it to the NHL: Kasperi Kapanen. Rutherford’s four other selections (Sam Lafferty, Anthony Angello, Jaden Lindo, and Jeff Taylor) have never made it to the NHL level. However, Lafferty, Angello, and Taylor have all played at least one season for the Penguins’ minor league club (AHL), the Wilkes-Barre/Scranton Penguins. In my opinion, a player who has played a season in the AHL or NHL is considered successful drafting. Therefore, Jim Rutherford went 4 for 5 in his first draft for the Penguins.
In Rutherford’s first year, he made some very prominent moves, one being the day before the draft — trading James Neal to Nashville for Patric Hornqvist and Nick Spaling. Some of his next big moves were actually not making any moves. He let Brooks Orpik and Matt Niskanen walk away from the Penguins. During the 2014-2015 season, the Penguins were stymied by the New York Rangers in the playoffs for the second year straight.
After an unsuccessful trip to the playoffs, Rutherford returned to the draft scene. In the 2015 NHL Entry Draft, the Penguins had four picks. In the second round, they selected Daniel Sprong, in the fifth round, they selected Dominik Simon, in the sixth round, they selected Frederik Tiffels, and in the seventh round, they selected Nikita Palvychev. Of their four selections, Sprong and Simon have made it to the NHL level. Daniel Sprong was traded this year to the Anaheim Ducks after being unable to crack a top 6 slot for the Penguins. Simon, however, has become a staple in the Penguins roster due to his flexibility in play style, though he has played primarily with Sidney Crosby. Tiffels has played for the Wilkes-Barre/Scranton Penguins and Palvychev is currently playing collegiate hockey for Penn State. Rutherford’s success rate for the 2015 draft is 3 out of 4, and an aggregate 7 out of 9. His biggest move involving a draft pick, though, was trading 2014’s 1st rounder (Kapanen) and the aforementioned Spaling for Phil Kessel in the summer.
In the 2015-2016 season, Rutherford’s Penguins won the Stanley Cup against the San Jose Sharks after going through the Tampa Bay Lightning, Washington Capitals, and New York Rangers. Rutherford’s major moves for the season included trading for Ian Cole, Phil Kessel, Eric Fehr, Nick Bonino, Trevor Daley, Carl Hagelin, and Justin Schultz. The only notable signing was Matt Cullen.
After winning the Stanley Cup, Rutherford returned to the 2016 NHL Entry Draft with hopes of creating the building blocks for future depth players for the Penguins. In the draft, the Penguins had six draft picks, two occurring in the second round. Of the six selections, the Penguins’ most promising prospect, Filip Gustavsson, was traded away in order to acquire Derick Brassard in 2018. The other five selections have not been eligible to play in Wilkes-Barre/Scranton. Gustavsson is projected to make a few starts this season for the Ottawa Senators, and therefore I am counting him as a success. However, I am unable to count the other five picks in my grading as they have yet to be eligible for any NHL or AHL consideration. Therefore, Jim Rutherford was 1 for 1 in the 2016 NHL Entry Draft, making him 8 for 10 in his drafts so far.
In the 2016-2017 season, the Penguins again won the Stanley Cup. Defeating the Nashville Predators in 6 games, the Penguins became the first team since the Detroit Red Wings (1996-1998) to win consecutive Stanley Cups. Notable performers include Sidney Crosby, Jake Guentzel, Justin Schultz, Phil Kessel, and Evgeni Malkin. Sidney Crosby was named the Conn Smythe Trophy winner for the second time in his illustrious career.
Jim Rutherford returned to the 2017 NHL Entry Draft with six more picks. Rutherford targeted the recurring weakness for the Penguins: defensemen. The biggest name for the Penguins in this draft is the second round pick Zachary Lauzon. Though none of Rutherford’s selections are eligible to play in the AHL, we can see that Rutherford is mindful of the Penguins’ future. With a constantly changing defensive core due to injuries and consistency issues, the Penguins need to bolster their youth and develop defensemen who are familiar with their system. Jim Rutherford has taken many steps to actively work on this development. In the 2017 draft, Rutherford selected 4 defensemen out of his 6 picks.
After back-to-back Stanley Cups, the Penguins fell short in the 2017-2018 season, losing to the eventual champions, the Washington Capitals. Injuries plagued the Penguins’ goaltending and consistency issues with forward depth prove to be fatal for the Penguins. During the season, we saw exceptional performances by Kris Letang, Phil Kessel, Evgeni Malkin, Sidney Crosby, and Justin Schultz. With the Penguins’ superstars performing well above the elite level, Jim Rutherford looked to bolster his depth. Acquiring Riley Sheahan and Derick Brassard while giving up defenseman Ian Cole were attempts to fill in key third and fourth line center roles, which did not pan out.
Leaving the unsuccessful season behind him, Rutherford entered the 2018 NHL Entry Draft looking to continue to bolster his future defensive core. Drafting Calen Addison in the second round is a sure-fire sign that Rutherford wants the future of the Penguins to be extremely strong defensively. The next three picks the Penguins had during the 2018 draft were all forwards, which Rutherford is looking to develop into key depth pieces for the future. I cannot grade this draft as no player is close to being able to play in the AHL.
This season, Rutherford has made moves to continue to make his team better. Trading away Daniel Sprong for young Swede Marcus Pettersson has shown that Rutherford wants to continue to make his defensive core young and mobile. Additional moves, like signing defenseman Juuso Riikola and Jack Johnson, show that Rutherford has his eyes set on improving his defense. Smaller moves, like signing veteran Matt Cullen to the veteran minimum and picking up Tanner Pearson for Carl Hagelin show that Rutherford would still like depth forward production.
All in all, Rutherford has done very well as General Manger for the Penguins. With 8 out of his 10 applicable draft picks playing in the AHL or NHL, Rutherford has had a keen eye for drafting promising young talent. His ability to hire an accurate scouting crew has proved to be essential in his tenure. In the end, I would give Jim Rutherford an ‘A’ with his drafting. Given how he has used draft picks as bargaining chips to acquire NHL-established talent, I do believe that Rutherford understands the value of draft picks, but also is willing to give up future talent for current success.