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Best GM in Penguins History: Jim Rutherford vs. Craig Patrick

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Pittsburgh Penguins General Manager Jim Rutherford, Craig Patrick
Pittsburgh Penguins General Manager Jim Rutherford, Craig Patrick

Two Hall of Fame general managers. Two Stanley Cup rings during their tenures the Pittsburgh Penguins General Manager. Each was known as horsetrader, and each fleeced fellow GMs for valuable assets in lopsided trades, which the other side thought was fair, at least at the time. Craig Patrick and Jim Rutherford have distinguished careers, and each received significant votes in the PHN voting for the Penguins All-Time team.

Ray Shero and Eddie Johnston received some votes, after all, it was Johnston who had to foresight to engineer the worst season in the NHL then rebuffed massive offers for the rights to Mario Lemieux at the 1984 NHL Draft.

Shero found the necessary odds and ends, such as Bill Guerin, essential to complete the Pittsburgh Penguins 2009 Stanley Cup championship. His trading prowess was impressive as he also plucked Marian Hossa from then-Atlanta GM Don Waddel in 2008.

We should also make special note of Shero’s draft record, which includes successful third and fourth-round picks, Jake Guentzel, Matt Murray, Bryan Rust, Robert Bortuzzo, and Tom Kuhnackl. It all came in four years from 2010 to 2013.

One has to wonder how many more votes Shero would have received if he wasn’t tied to coach Dan Bylsma? But one decision can be the fulcrum between success and looking for another job.

For the record, Penguins fans voted Craig Patrick the Penguins All-Time GM. This specific poll received far fewer votes than the others, perhaps because it is such a tough choice. Craig Patrick edged Jim Rutherford, 52% to 33%  in our survey, which received nearly 700 votes.

Tale of the Tape: Drafting

Jim Rutherford has been on the job for six seasons and thus far six NHL drafts. He’s traded the Penguins first-round pick five of the six seasons. His only top round choices were the one he inherited in 2014, and in 2019 the Penguins selected Sam Poulin, who looks like a good choice. 

So, there isn’t much of a draft record by which to judge Rutherford. The Penguins have drafted four NHL players (six if you count Daniel Sprong and Anthony Angello) in Rutherford’s six drafts. Interestingly, three were fourth and fifth rounders, including Sam Lafferty, Angello, and Dominik Simon. 2014 top pick Kasperi Kapanen was part of the Penguins trade for Phil Kessel just one year after being drafted and has carved out a successful NHL career. Sprong did not start or finish this season in the NHL.

Patrick, however, made a habit of keeping his first round picks. From 2000-2005, Patrick drafted 25 players who played in the NHL. His last two first-round picks were Sidney Crosby (2005) and Evgeni Malkin (2004), but those were easy.

Patrick should get a few points for holding firm in trade talks with Florida in 2003, too. Patrick moved up from No. 3 overall for nothing more than Mikael Samuelsson to get the top pick, which became Marc-Andre Fleury.

Not a bad three-year run, eh?

Otherwise, Patrick drafted 10 players in addition to Crosby and Malkin, who played 200 or more NHL games in those final six drafts. The list of later first round choices includes Brooks Oprik and Colby Armstrong. The second through fifth rounders are highlighted by Alex Goligoski, Tyler Kennedy, and most notably, Kris Letang (3rd Rd, 2005).

The Pittsburgh Penguins even drafted 2009 Game 7 hero Max Talbot in the eighth round of the 2002 NHL Draft.

So, comparing apples to apples, as much as is possible, there is a clear Draft Day winner: Craig Patrick.

HorseTrading

Patrick’s ability to make trades in the final seven or eight years of his tenure was limited to moving talented players for pucks and cash to keep the lights on. Ownership issues, arena issues, and an out-of-control NHL economic system meant Patrick was bailing water of a rowboat with little more than a soup spoon.

Generally, he gets a pass on the final years. His trade to snag Fleury at the top of the draft looked sketchy for a few years as Nathan Horton, and Eric Staal had stellar beginnings to their career while Fleury had a few false starts, but all’s well that ends well.

Patrick didn’t immediately make a big splash when he took over in December 1989, but he began to make significant moves within two weeks. He acquired defensemen Scott Bjugstad (Nick Bjugstad’s uncle), and Gord Dineen from Minnesota. Patrick shuffled deck chairs for the next season and a half as Mario Lemieux missed time with significant back injuries and surgeries. The trades were ho-hum, at best.

However, with the return of Lemieux on the horizon, Patrick turned aggressive for the 1990-91 season. In June, Patrick acquired future Hall of Famer Joe Mullen for a second-round pick. In December, he flipped 40-goal scorer Rob Brown to Hartford for all-round speedy winger Scott Young. He also acquired future Hall of Fame defenseman Larry Murphy with stalwart defender Peter Taglianetti.

Then came perhaps the biggest splash in Pittsburgh Penguins history.

Patrick acquired NHL players Ron Francis, Ulf Samuelsson for John Cullen, and Zarley Zalapski. There were additional pieces from both sides, but the meat of the deal changed the Penguins forever. They became Stanley Cup champions with Lemieux and Francis down the middle, and Samuelsson and Murphy on the blue line.

In 1992 Patrick again pulled off an amazing set of trades, which melded together form another blockbuster. Patrick shipped away Hall of Famers Mark Recchi and Paul Coffey and received Rick Tocchet, Kjell Samuelsson, and Ken Wregget. The Penguins won another Stanley Cup, and Tocchet became part of the Pittsburgh club forever.

The remainder of the 1990s was about maintenance and preservation. Patrick made the woefully bad deal of Markus Naslund for Alex Stojanovich, but there were no more blockbusters. Luc Robitaille was acquired for one year, then Patrick flipped Robitaille for Petr Nedved, who also came and went quickly. But Patrick spun Nedved into Alex Kovalev.

Patrick did cobble together competitive teams on a shoestring budget from 1998-2001 before the full post-Mario and Jagr rebuilding process began. However, Patrick operated with one-arm tied behind his back for much of the last 10 years of his tenure.

Jim Rutherford also began his Penguins time with a building block trade. Shortly after assuming the GM role, he traded 40-goal scorer James Neal to Nashville for blood-and-guts goal scorer Patric Hornqvist.

Six years later, Hornqvist remains a pillar of the Penguins.

Rutherford’s superpower is his ability to divest himself from bad situations. In 2014-15, he acquired David Perron for a first-round pick, but that didn’t work. One season later, Rutherford turned Perron into Carl Hagelin.

At the 2015 NHL Trade Deadline, Rutherford made a couple of small deals that paid handsomely. He acquired Ian Cole from St. Louis, and he dealt former first-round pick, Simon Despres, to Anaheim for Ben Lovejoy. Both defense

Jim Rutherford didn’t build the Penguins on a series of blockbuster trades, but he has made a couple of thundering moves on the trade scene. On July 1, 2015, Rutherford outlasted his rivals and acquired a 40-goal scorer with a bad rap. He snagged Phil Kessel for Kapanen and a first-round pick. There were lots of other pieces involved, but that was the heart of the deal.

Kessel would, of course, become a two-time Stanley Cup champion.

Rutherford had the Midas touch in 2015-16. In addition to Hagelin, he acquired Nick Bonino from Vancouver for Brandon Sutter. Rutherford flipped badly aging defenseman Rob Scuderi for Stanley Cup sparkplug Trevor Daley. And he picked up Justin Schultz at the trade deadline for a third-round pick.

His run from July 1 to Feb. 27 created back-to-back Stanley Cup champions.

After the Penguins second Stanley Cup, Rutherford’s record gets spotty. There are the Ryan Reaves and Riley Sheahan deals which didn’t work out and left the team with additional needs. And there was the ill-fated Derick Brassard bombshell trade, which was brilliant, except for Brassard’s unhappiness with taking a backseat behind two generational talents, Crosby and Malkin.

Rutheford’s superpower did turn Brassard into Jared McCann and Nick Bjugstad. Still, a lot of assets, including a valuable first-round pick and goalie prospect Filip Gustavsson, were lost in the process.

Rutherford’s 2020 NHL Trade Deadline work will be judged over the next few years. Early returns of Jason Zucker, who was acquired for a first-round pick and Calen Addison (and Alex Galchenyuk), appears to be promising. He will never have to go through the unbalanced economic system, which crippled Patrick and the Penguins ability to be competitive.

So, it’s difficult to appropriately compare Craig Patrick and Jim Rutherford, but if we take Patrick’s first six years against Rutherford’s first six, we can make a decision.

All-Time GM: Craig Patrick

Adding all other factors, Patrick is the Pittsburgh Penguins all-time GM. Any GM who does the job long enough will have mistakes and big mistakes on their resume, but Patrick was the GM who transformed the Penguins from an undermanned team built around Lemieux to a Hall of Fame parade. Patrick helped shape the Penguins identity, which lasts to this day with Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin, and Kris Letang.

Jim Rutherford has been the necessary hand on the till. His ability to wiggle out of bad contracts and address team needs has been brilliant. Even the Brassard trade was so cleverly crafted to squeeze under the salary cap that it left the veterans at the NHL offices confused.

Rutherford took over a terrible situation in 2014. The Penguins were onto their second page of candidates for the GM post and coaches were running away. The superstars were bickering, and it seemed the Penguins saga was about to have an ugly ending. Instead, they lifted two more Stanley Cups, and Sidney Crosby took his place among the all-time greats.

Rutheford took a chance on a hard-nosed assistant coach with a black mark on his resume from a bad tour as an assistant coach in Vancouver. That coach was Mike Sullivan, and things have worked out pretty well.

But Patrick’s seeds sewed an organization. From Tocchet to Letang, Francis to Crosby and Malkin, Patrick’s successes became cornerstones of the Pittsburgh Penguins organization. And so Craig Patrick is the PHN Penguins All-Time General Manager.

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