Pittsburgh Penguins general manager Jim Rutherford may be the most honest, plain-spoken general manager in professional sports. Without condescension or irritation, he answers media queries at face value and does so matter-of-factly. However, his honesty may have struck a nerve with the division rival Columbus Blue Jackets GM Jarmo Kekalainen.
And, new Penguins defenseman Jack Johnson, as he may have done as a player, drew the ire of Blue Jackets head coach John Tortorella. Sunday, the Penguins signed former Columbus defenseman Johnson to a five-year, $16.25 million contract. However, in the introductory press conference, Rutherford sought to correct a reporter’s question predicated on Johnson having a bad season.
“I beg to differ about (any opinions) that he had a bad year last year,” Rutherford said. “I don’t think he had a bad year. He was a healthy scratch at the end of the season. I know the reason why. It wasn’t because of how he was playing,” Rutherford explained.
There are only a couple of ways to read that comment. It could have been a concealed injury which kept Johnson out. Or, if it wasn’t performance-based, it seems Rutherford was alluding to friction between the head coach John Tortorella and Johnson. It certainly wouldn’t be the first player with whom Tortorella has clashed.
“Actually, (Mike Sullivan) watched the three games leading up to when he was put in the press box, and we actually felt he played pretty well,” Rutherford said. “We feel very strongly about this player.”
Those comments were enough to draw a direct response from Kekalainen. Via the Columbus Blue Jackets:
“I can answer (Jim Rutherford) by saying I have no idea what he’s talking about. I have no idea what he’s talking about,” said Kekalainen. “If he thinks it was something else, he knows something that me and Tortorella doesn’t. Totally a coaches decision and nothing else.”
But Kekalainen added a little salt, too.
“What do you think? We didn’t want to win in the playoffs? We put the best defensive lineup possible out every night, and in the playoffs in particular,” he said. “During the season there might be some development stuff, and there might be showing to somebody in trade talks. Never in the playoffs. He was already a UFA, so what do we care?”
“I have no idea what anybody else would be speculating about,” Kekalainen said.
At the press conference, Johnson declined to get into the specifics of last season and why he was a healthy scratch, but did say he wanted to play in a “winning culture”
“There were a few things that didn’t go according to plan. Some of those things I prefer not to discuss in the media,” Johnson said. ” But I’m a firm believer everything happens for a reason and not coming to an extension in Columbus led me to this opportunity. I couldn’t be happier and I wouldn’t trade a thing that happened to be standing here.
Praise for one organization was taken as criticism by another. Tortorella fired back with both barrels. Our friends at The Athletic got direct quotes from Tortorella which included an f-bomb and references to cow manure.
“All I know is, this organization, from the lawyers, the front office, (John Davidson), the managers, the coaches, players, have done nothing but try to help Jack,” Tortorella told The Athletic. “And for him to backhand slap us like this is utter b——-, and he should know better.”
Tortorella also wasn’t keen on Rutherford’s comment.
“And to have a general manager question our decision-making from three hours away, he must be a f—— magician,” Tortorella said.
(Since the escalated war of words, Aaron Portzline of the Athletic has also reported Johnson called Blue Jackets President of Hockey Operations to apologize and explain he did not mean to offend, only to praise his new team).
The Penguins have been the Blue Jackets nemesis for several seasons. The Blue Jackets franchise has made the playoffs four times since the organization’s inception in 2000 but the Penguins eliminated the Blue Jackets in Round 1 twice (2014, 2017). In 2017-18, for the second straight year, the Blue Jackets lost to the eventual Stanley Cup champions. This time, it was the Washington Capitals. In fact, the Blue Jackets franchise has yet to win a playoff series.
On the hottest day of the year, Penguins fans and the player probably found Rutherford’s honesty refreshing, though things may be even hotter in Columbus. The first clash between the Penguins and Blue Jackets is Nov. 24 at PPG Paints Arena.