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Let’s Talk About Jim Rutherford

It hasn't always been pretty, but Rutherford has adapted from mistakes quickly.

It hasn’t always been pretty, but Rutherford has adapted from mistakes quickly.

When Jim Rutherford replaced Ray Shero as the general manager of the Pittsburgh Penguins it seemed like there may have been a sort of invisible interim tag to Rutherford’s status. Like he was only coming in for a bit to help guide prospective general managers Bill Guerin and Jason Botterill until they were seen as ready to run the Penguins effectively.

This is not the case. Instead, as Rutherford has made obvious on many occasions, this is a job Rutherford likes and would like to keep for the foreseeable future. The former professional goalie knows he didn’t exactly make the best decisions towards the end of his time as the general manager of the Carolina Hurricanes and I can’t imagine those decisions are the ones he wants tied to his lasting legacy.

So Rutherford comes in and everyone has these pictures in their heads of what he’s done or failed to do but you don’t get to where he’s been by caring too much about opinions like that. He may be one of the older general managers in the league, but he isn’t afraid of new ideas. Look, he’s not stupid. He knew that maybe he wasn’t doing it all the right way in Carolina. He’s been trying new things. I know there are people out there who wouldn’t want you to believe me when I say this, but he’s done a decent job with the mess he was given.

Think about it this way:
In early 2011, Ray Shero lost Evgeni Malkin to a season-ending ACL surgery and Sidney Crosby to a serious concussion within a few weeks of each other. In hindsight this is maybe the point where you say, let’s play it out and see what we can accomplish. Then let’s take our seven draft picks this summer and regroup with our big guys next year. But Ray did not do that. He was the general manager of a team in win-now mode and somehow thought that could still be possible even without both Crosby and Malkin. The key, he thought, was just adding other guys. He added James Neal, which was one of his best trades as a GM, but that same year gave up a draft pick for nothing just to talk to Dan Hamhuis and thought Alex Kovalev for another pick was a good idea. He handed out a few more picks and ended up only adding five more names to the Penguins’ organization via that draft.

He would follow this up over the next few off-seasons by forking over contracts with serious term to Rob Scuderi, Chris Kunitz, and Pascal Dupuis because those guys had helped win the cup in 2009. At the time, it didn’t necessarily seem wrong since no one had built a dynasty in the salary cap era, but as we know now – that wasn’t the way to do it.

But that’s Ray Shero. That’s before Jim Rutherford. That’s just what Rutherford was handed. A team with four legitimate stars, more blue-chip defensemen than you could shake a stick at, a forward prospect pool whose best attribute was a speedy first rounder who couldn’t play a full season of healthy hockey anywhere and a steaming side of salary cap hell.

What’s Rutherford done since he got here? Well, he experimented. What do I mean by that? I mean he tried something and if it didn’t work he moved on. In 2014-2015, he added sandpaper guys like Steve Downie and Blake Comeau in an effort to keep Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin safe. It didn’t work and the goals dried up in a big way down the stretch. Oh well, those guys were on one year deals so he just erased the white board he wrote his plans on and started again. Because he learned from previous mistakes. Do not hand out long-term contracts unless you’re sure how it’s going to play out. He looked at teams like Tampa Bay and Chicago, teams whose scheme he could emulate without completely blowing up his roster (because a team with Malkin and Crosby will never be the next LA Kings), and drew a skeleton.

Get Younger. Get Faster. Play to our strengths.

He realized, too, when the coach he hired wasn’t working anymore. No big deal, change the coach, move on.
Even the moves that no one has liked were for a reason. Simon Despres, for all that he is a skilled hockey player, failed to find a way to impress two coaches and two general managers and was passed up by Olli Maatta, Brian Dumoulin and Derrick Pouliot. Should he probably have yielded more than just Ben Lovejoy? You bet. But hey, even the almighty Blackhawks screwed up their Patrick Sharp deal – no one is perfect.

Rutherford is also looking for players in places Ray Shero never really explored. Point to the last college free agent or international free agent Ray Shero was aggressive about. Rutherford? He’s got Nicolas Andersen and Sergei Plotnikov from foreign leagues, while he plucked forwards Ty Loney and Conor Sheary from college ranks. Not every prospect is going to play out but he’s made a concerted effort to identify those he’s interested in and do what he can to bring them into the system and do it in a way that doesn’t handcuff the team long-term.

But his biggest success? It has been identifying what needs his team has and working to fill them. Dominik Simon, who the Penguins took with their fifth round pick in the 2015 entry draft, was set to hit free agency if not drafted last June.  Plenty of teams held back on picking him, hoping to use that pick on someone else and sign him as a free agent on July 1st. Rutherford identified him as a player he wanted after seeing the Czech winger skate alongside Jaromir Jagr in the 2015 IIHF World Championships. He took him with one of the organization’s five picks and signed him quickly to his entry level deal. How’s it worked out? Well, the youngster was set to be an AHL All-Star before an injury forced him to bow out. And it’s fairly likely he’s only not been called up to the big club yet because the team wanted to give him as much AHL time as possible to adjust to the smaller ice in North America.

And current NHL depth? The Bonino-Sutter trade, coupled with the off-season signing of Eric Fehr, bolstered a position of need for the Penguins in the “centers not named Malkin or Crosby” department. And the backend? Oh you know he just replaced Rob Scuderi with Trevor Daley, no big deal.

This is not to say Shero was a bad general manager, as he had no idea if his plan would or wouldn’t work at the time he made it. It didn’t. In fact, the only problem Shero ever really had was that he kept going back to the same plan like it was written in stone even after it became clear it just wasn’t going to work. Nor does this mean Rutherford is the best general manager in the world. He makes mistakes. Sometimes he stays up until 3 am to make really good trades and sometimes he makes a late trade call he maybe wishes he hadn’t. But he’s not a bad general manager. He’s doing the best he can with the resources he’s got. He’s a capable, average, general manager with no regard for the trade deadline or for what other people think. Because that’s the thing a lot of people are forgetting. You don’t have to think he’s the best to say he’s doing an okay job. Is he going to lead the Penguins to Stanley Cup glory right away? Well, we don’t know. But we know if the plan he’s using doesn’t work he’s already got the eraser for his whiteboard ready to try something else. After eight years of “I’m sure my way is right just let me keep trying” is that really a bad thing?

Leah is a hockey and city life contributor to The Point of Pittsburgh. She is a 2013 graduate from the John Curley Center for Sports Journalism at Penn State University.