As news broke this week that Tom Fitzgerald would be kept as the GM of the New Jersey Devils, it meant yet another former Pittsburgh Penguins assistant general manager would get the big job. Three of the four assistants which Penguins GM Jim Rutherford hired or kept in 2014 have now become GMs. There is also one other former Rutherford protege about to claim his second NHL GM gig.
PHN put out a few feelers to get some background and info on working for Rutherford. Naturally, it was the wrong week to ask NHL GMs who are preparing for the coming NHL return and bubble city preparations. Rutherford is also busy preparing every last detail.
“With me, I spend most of the day on the phone with people going through things that some people would think are little things, but we have to get it right,” Rutherford said via media conference call on Saturday. “We have to take all of the risk out of everything, even to the point about how we’re getting certain equipment to Toronto, who can take it, where it goes … there’s so many details.”
Rutherford’s work as a GM has been lauded by fans, peers, and even the Hockey Hall of Fame. Last November, Rutherford was inducted for his work building the Hartford Whalers, Carolina Hurricanes, and Pittsburgh Penguins. Rutherford has one Stanley Cup ring from Carolina and two with the Penguins.
Late Wednesday afternoon, my cellphone rang but showed “No Caller ID.” I answered out of sheer curiosity. Would it be another car warranty robocall for the PT Cruiser I owned in 2005 (don’t judge), or perhaps I could save on my electric bill?
“Dan, hi, it’s Ron Francis…” the call began.
The call was unexpected but a gracious favor from Francis, who is the new GM of the yet unnamed Seattle NHL franchise.
Jim Rutherford not only signed Ron Francis to a free agent contract as a player in 1998 when Francis was a 35-year-old youngster, but Rutherford also gave Francis his entry in NHL management. However, he didn’t offer Francis much money to make the transition.
“He signed me as a free-agent when I was young, the ripe age of 35,” Francis said. “What I always appreciated (in management), he let me wear a lot of hats. There was a lot to learn.
It’s not a secret, but in my first year, he paid me $35,000. It was a test to see if I would rest on my laurels.”
Francis eventually got a raise and did not rest on his Hall of Fame playing career in which he too won a couple of Stanley Cups with the Penguins and was named to the 100 Greatest Players list. Francis earned a reputation as a sharp hockey mind in the dressing room, and he displayed that in the front office, too.
“(He included me) in player decisions. As an assistant GM, I got to see a lot of different parts of the business,” said Francis. “I always appreciated him bringing me in on different parts of the business and the tough decisions.”
In the summer of 2014, after 20 years as the GM of the Hartford Whalers and Carolina Hurricanes, Rutherford was moved into a team-president role so Francis could become the GM.
“It was great for him. We worked together for a lot of years. I was comfortable riding shotgun, but he was ready to ride into the president’s role,” Francis said.
However, a few weeks later, Rutherford was intrigued by the Penguins open GM slot. Rutherford was 65-years-old when the Penguins hired him, and he publicly expressed his belief that he would helm the job for two, maybe three years before one of the assistant general managers took over.
That was six years ago.
All of those assistant GMs can say they are or have been NHL GMs. Jason Botterill (Buffalo. Fired last month), Bill Guerin (Minnesota, current), and Fitzgerald (New Jersey) have become GMs, and Rutherford’s first protege dished to PHN what it was like to work for Rutherford.
Rutherford is renowned as a horse trader, but a fair one.
“Billy, never try to win a trade. Don’t try to screw the other guy over. Make a fair trade, and you’ll get more deals done,” Guerin said Rutherford told him.
“In my first year as AGM, we had every scenario possible. I sat down in his office, ‘Is it always like this’ I asked him,” Francis said. “He said there’s always something. You never know what it is, but you treat them like you want to be treated.”
New Penguins Job
Rutherford’s first year in Pittsburgh wasn’t the smoothest on record, either. The organization was in turmoil. The team was fracturing, and Rutherford’s moves didn’t yield results. Jim Rutherford traded popular James Neal to Nashville for Patric Hornqvist. The move was wildly unpopular in the fan-driven Penguins universe. Rutherford’s next handful of moves yielded little to nothing immediately.
Rob Klinkhammer, David Perron, Maxim Lapierre, Daniel Winnick, Ian Cole, and Ben Lovejoy were next to be acquired. Cole was initially saddled in the press box and didn’t hit his stride with the Penguins until the following year. Lovejoy also became a revelation the following season. Perron, who was acquired for a first-round pick, Lapierre, and Winnick were soon gone.
But Rutherford’s golden rule treatment of his colleagues, which allowed him to get into trouble with those acquisitions, also allowed him to get out of trouble.
Penguins fans probably don’t need a history lesson on what happened next. In 2015-16, Rutherford fired the coach he hired in his first summer but replaced him with then-AHL coach Mike Sullivan. Rutherford’s deals sprouted results, and the next batch of acquisitions included successful stints by Phil Kessel, Nick Bonino, Carl Hagelin, and Trevor Daley.
Stanley Cups–that’s Cups, plural–followed.
“There’s a lot of pressure with this job. The Hall of Fame relieves some pressure,” Francis laughed. “(Jim Rutherford) has shown he’s very capable, and he’s enjoying it more.”
Rutherford’s staying power and his success were best summed up as I teased the 57-year-old Francis about leading a team until he too is 71-years-old.
“NO,” was Francis’ amused response.
Seattle NHL Name
When you have the Seattle GM on the phone, you can’t not-ask about the coming name. Just like when you see Randy Jackson in the mall, you can’t not-get his autograph (Step Brothers reference).
“Oh, no. I wish they would announce it, so I don’t have to answer that question anymore,” Francis groaned.
He swore he doesn’t know the name. That’s not part of his job description, but Francis then waded into dangerous waters. He turned the tables on the interviewer and asked this writer what name they should pick.
He obviously doesn’t know me too well.
“I know you won’t, but the kid in me loves the idea of the Kraken,” I confessed, or demanded.
Cmon, what a logo and pregame light show that could be. Release the Kraken! Francis promised he would tell his folks my suggestion, and I insisted my name be attached, too.
Our conversation set the standard for answering the phone, despite “No Caller ID.” The next poor telemarketer who calls has a high standard to meet.