Two Stanley Cups with the Pittsburgh Penguins, a Hall of Fame Induction ceremony, and a thorough retool in a matter of months for the 2019-20 season highlight Penguins GM Jim Rutherford and his resume. There isn’t another GM in the NHL with a higher reputation for offering fair trades, and that notoriety has allowed Rutherford to do and undo more deals than most general managers could fathom.
After former protege Bill Guerin, who is now the Minnesota Wild GM dealt Jason Zucker to the Penguins, he told Minneapolis media, “With Jim, I knew I’d get a fair shake.”
But how does Rutherford fare under the pressure of the NHL Trade Deadline?
To review or grade Rutherford’s trade deadline work, we’ll have to adjust the time defined as the NHL trade deadline. We’ll examine trades after Jan. 1. In addition to being a square horse trader, Rutherford also likes to get his deadline shopping done well before everyone else. He’s the person who purchases Christmas presents in August instead of racing through the mall in a panic on Dec. 24.
Rutherford’s trade deadline work in Pittsburgh didn’t begin well. Not well at all. But things have certainly improved.
NHL Trade Deadline 2015
Big Splash: Jan. 2, 2015, David Perron Deal
Penguins traded their first-round pick and Rob Klinkhammer to the Edmonton Oilers for David Perron. It was a move that was supposed to add skill and scoring touch to Sidney Crosby’s wing. Fans rejoiced. The trade flopped.
The first-round pick became Mathew Barzal for the New York Islanders, and Perron quickly cooled after a hot start. Perron went exceedingly long stretches without a Penguins goal.
Rutherford attempted to pluck Perron out of struggling Edmonton, drop him on Crosby’s line, and watch the magic. It didn’t work out that way. Perron had six goals in his first seven games, but just five goals in his next 30 games, including none in the final 12 games of 2014-15.
The silver lining is Rutherford flipped Perron back to the Western Conference. The Penguins traded Perron to Anaheim for Carl Hagelin, one year later.
Rutherford also traded Maxim Lapierre to St. Louis for Marcel Goc, and he acquired blossoming puck possession darling Daniel Winnick from Toronto for a second-rounder, a fourth-rounder, and lightning-fast plugger Zach Sill.
Best Move: March 2, 2015, Ian Cole Gamble.
The Penguins traded big defenseman Robert Bortuzzo to St. Louis for struggling defender Ian Cole. The move was not an immediate home run as Cole ate a lot of press box nachos, but when given a chance, Cole added more grit and physicality to his game. He hoisted a couple of Stanley Cups with the Penguins.
Rutherford also pulled another dandy on March 2 when he dealt faded prospect Simon Despres to Anaheim for defenseman Ben Lovejoy. Lovejoy was invaluable on the Penguins 2016 Stanley Cup run and talked Brian Dumoulin through his early NHL days.
None of the first-wave trades worked out, and the New York Rangers summarily dismissed the Pittsburgh Penguins in Round One. However, getting Ian Cole and Ben Lovejoy turned out to be great moves that paid big dividends in 2016.
NHL Trade Deadline 2016
The Penguins acquired defenseman Trevor Daley for Rob Scuderi in December. That deal will forever be a top-five steal in Penguin’s history.
Best Move: Jan. 16, 2016: Hagelin Arrives
Rutherford undid the Perron misstep by acquiring Carl Hagelin, who was a playoff dynamo during the New York Rangers recent runs to the Stanley Cup Final and Eastern Conference Finals.
However, Hagelin cashed in by signing a four-year, $16 million free-agent contract with Anaheim in the summer of 2015. As we learned, Hagelin is a second-half player, but Anaheim GM Bob Murray was starting to sweat. Rutherford engineered one of his horse trades, and the Penguins acquired the H of the HBK line. Hagelin was an integral part of the back-to-back Stanley Cup championships.
Honorable Mention: Justin Schultz
Edmonton media, fans, and the collective Twitterverse were beating on Justin Schultz. “The worst defenseman in the NHL” was the tag.
The former high-profile college free agent lost his mojo in Edmonton when they shoved him into the No. 1 defenseman role. Things spiraled, and Jim Rutherford plucked Schultz for a third-round pick.
That’s worked out pretty well, too.
NHL Trade Deadline 2017
2017 was about depth. The Penguins needed depth, and Rutherford acquired just enough insurance.
Best Deal: Feb. 23, 2017, Ron Hainsey
Hainsey was a third-pairing defenseman for whom Rutherford paid a second-round pick and an AHL player. When top-pairing defenseman Kris Letang had neck surgery, Hainsey stepped in on the Penguins top pair with Brian Dumoulin. The pair were an odd-couple and not always pretty, but they were effective enough.
Hainsey had three assists in 16 regular-season games, but the aging veteran played the first playoff games of his career with the Penguins. He had eight points (2g, 6a) in 25 playoff games and helped the Penguins lift the Cup for the second time in two years.
Rutherford also snared defenseman Mark Streit and some salary retention from Tampa Bay for a fourth-round pick. Streit helped to stabilize the Penguins defense in the final month of the regular season, though he played in just three playoff games.
The Penguins won with pure guts, guile, and a Flower carried them for two rounds. The needed some pushback and fresh legs, but all is well that ends well. The Penguins won the Stanley Cup.
NHL Trade Deadline 2018
Swing and a Miss: Feb. 23, 2018, the Derrick Brassard Grab
The dead-legged Pittsburgh Penguins needed a boost, and Jim Rutherford thought he pulled it off. After the NHL initially rejected the because it was so complicated with too many salary-cap workarounds, the Penguins finally settled on the three-team deal with the Vegas Golden Knights and Ottawa Senators.
The Penguins gave up Ryan Reaves, who had been banished to the fourth line or bench. Rutherford also parted with out-of-favor Ian Cole, his first, third, and fourth-round picks, and goalie prospect Filip Gustavsson.
Rutherford thought he was out of the Brassard sweepstakes until the days before the deal when Vegas GM George McPhee decided to pay back Rutherford for handing him a second-round pick to select Marc-Andre Fleury in the expansion draft. McPhee helped the Penguins acquire Brassard to prevent Winnipeg from landing him.
It should have worked. Really, it was perfect on paper, but it tanked, hard.
The Penguins also snared Josh Jooris at the deadline. The Penguins were summarily dismissed in six games by the Washington Capitals in Round Two.
There is no fault to Rutherford that Brassard didn’t accept a third-line role, even for a Stanley Cup. Every GM in the league would have made the deal, but sometimes life doesn’t work.
NHL Trade Deadline 2019
Undoing It: Feb. 1, 2019, Goodbye Brassard, the Undoings
Best Move: Rutherford dumped Brassard and fellow failed third-line center candidate Riley Sheahan to Florida in exchange for Jared McCann and Nick Bjugstad, a pair of contracts that Florida didn’t want. Rutherford also included a second-round pick and two fourth-rounders in exchange for Jared McCann and Nick Bjugstad.
The move helped to change the Penguins mood by removing the frustrated Brassard. It also added youth, enthusiasm, and speed to the Penguins roster.
Jim Rutherford also flipped Jamie Oleksiak back to Dallas for the same fourth-round pick he used to acquire him from Dallas in 2018, and the Penguins sent spare forward Derek Grant back to Anaheim (where he played the previous season before signing a free-agent contract with the Penguins) for Joseph Blandisi.
Second Best Move: Rutherford undid yet another move when traded Tanner Pearson, who the Penguins acquired in November, to Vancouver for hulking defenseman Erik Gudbranson.
Gudbranson played some of the best hockey of his career down the stretch and held Washington Capitals bruiser Tom Wilson in check.
The deals were good. Rutherford stole McCann and Bjugstad. Gudbranson worked better than anyone thought possible. However, Rutherford left a festering problem by not trading Phil Kessel, despite repeated requests by the player and friction with the coaches. Ultimately, that was the undoing of the Penguins room and season.
Kessel was in the midst of another season with high point totals, and his value was much higher than it became in the summer of 2018.
NHL Trade Deadline 2020
Jason Zucker and counting. So far, this has an A written all over it.
Jim Rutherford Overall Grade: A+
Penguins GM Jim Rutherford is one of the best in the business. While some of his grades were short, he stacks up well above most of his competitors. The biggest blemish on his NHL trade deadline dealing is Brassard, and that was a brilliant trade.