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Jim Rutherford Wins Again; the GM Who Almost Wasn’t

The Derick Brassard acquisition is just the latest savvy move from the man who built the back-to-back champion Penguins.



Photo per Jim Rutherford Twitter Account

Jim Rutherford is a plain-spoken former NHL goalie who has won three Stanley Cups as a general manager, two in the last two years as the boss of the Pittsburgh Penguins.

On Friday, the GM again made a big splash by acquiring Derick Brassard from the Ottawa Senators, with financial help from the Vegas Golden Knights. The deal was so complex the NHL rejected it until it was reworked to comply with league rules.

Rutherford got the best player in the deal and another team to pick up 40 percent of the tab. It was the work of an artist.

Rutherford’s work has been almost perfect over the past two and a half years. He swung deals no one thought possible and won other trades which left opposing GM’s poorer for it.

Yet, as Rutherford built the last two Stanley Cup champions, it is only by serendipity he got the chance.

The Mess

In June 2014, just weeks before Rutherford began to remake the Penguins, the general manager job was offered to several others, all of whom declined the paycheck or even the opportunity to discuss it.

What might have happened if former Penguins assistant coach turned broadcaster Pierre McGuire, who badly wanted the job, accepted the ridiculous offer–a one year contract?

The Penguins GM job was a gig seemingly no one wanted. The Penguins organization had been cast into turmoil after GM Ray Shero was fired and the organization’s political gamesmanship kept coach Dan Bylsma under contract for a few extra weeks, despite no intention of keeping him as the head coach.

It was perceived as a toxic situation by experienced professionals who declined to pursue the Penguins GM position. Recently removed as GM of the Carolina Hurricanes and contemplating retirement, Jim Rutherford took the job.

It wasn’t a popular choice.

Rutherford’s tenure began in earnest on June 27, 2014, when he dealt sniping winger James Neal to the Nashville Predators for Patric Hornqvist and Nick Spaling.

The trade was Pittsburgh’s first introduction to Rutherford’s style; swift, decisive and with a clear purpose. Despite a few candlelight vigils and shrines dedicated to Neal, Rutherford began to dismantle the negative culture which engulfed the Penguins locker room.

Hornqvist has been an invaluable, positive character in the locker room and gritty, productive presence on the ice.

And Rutherford was just getting warmed up.

Building Blocks

In March of 2015, Rutherford began laying more championship bricks in the Penguins foundation. In criticized moves which look brilliant in hindsight, Rutherford acquired back-end defenseman Ben Lovejoy for formerly touted prospect defenseman Simon Despres. Lovejoy was solid during his tenure and helped to develop young defenseman, Brian Dumoulin.

Later the same day, Rutherford acquired Ian Cole from the St. Louis Blues for lumbering defenseman Robert Bortuzzo and a seventh-round pick. Cole had been locked in Blues coach Ken Hitchcock’s doghouse.

The base of the Penguins defense by winning yet more trades.

That season, the Penguins were quickly vanquished by the New York Rangers in the First Round, but their compete level was significantly higher in their 2015 loss to the Rangers than it was when the Blueshirts humbled them in the previous season.

Summer of Jim Rutherford: Hot Dog

In the summer of 2015, Rutherford put his indelible stamp on the Penguins.

Just days after the NHL draft, the Penguins acquired elite-scoring winger Phil Kessel from the Toronto Maple Leafs in exchange for former first-round pick Kasperi Kapanen, Nick Spaling, Scott Harrington, the Penguins 2016 first-round and third-round selections.

Rutherford’s skills were evident in the negotiations (nothing is secret in Toronto). As Kessel suitors dropped out, one by one, Rutherford remained patient. Rutherford also defended his interest internally, as there was considerable dissent within the Penguins hierarchy.

The maligned Kessel had become a scapegoat for Toronto’s continued failure. The anti-Kessel drumbeat grew louder, including an “expose” in the Toronto Sun about Kessel’s supposed penchant for streetside hot dogs.

A draft-day argument played out publicly as the Penguins scouts, assistant general managers (there were four, at the time) and Rutherford remained at the team’s draft table, after the draft, to discuss a Kessel deal. It was an animated discussion which included plenty of fist pounding and hands waving.

On July 1, 2015, Rutherford waited out the Maple Leafs and got Kessel for a paltry sum, much less than the Maple Leafs original asking price.

It was a massive win for Rutherford. And, you may know, Phil Kessel is a two-time Stanley Cup champion.

More Summer 2015 Winning

Also, a few weeks before the draft, the Penguins lost their heralded AHL coach, Jon Hynes to old friend Ray Shero and the New Jersey Devils. Rutherford made perhaps his shrewdest or luckiest move. On June 18, 2015, Rutherford hired former Boston Bruins head coach, Mike Sullivan to bench-boss the WBS Penguins.

After the Sullivan hire and the Kessel trade, Rutherford added another cult hero. In late July, Rutherford spun soft third-line center Brandon Sutter and a third-round choice to the Vancouver Canucks for center Nick Bonino, struggling defenseman Adam Clendening, and a second-round pick.

Oh, by the way, that second round pick became Filip Gustavsson. Another big win for ‘ol JR.

In mid-December, Rutherford dispatched head coach Mike Johnston in favor of Sullivan, who used his big voice and big personality to steam clean the remaining negativity from the locker room. A scrub brush and bleach followed.

Two days after elevating Sullivan, the Rutherford found another diamond in the rough. He dealt worn defenseman Rob Scuderi, who had ceased to be serviceable despite a $3.375 salary, to Chicago for out-of-favor defenseman Trevor Daley.

Daley’s speed and offensive spark propelled the Penguins toward the 2016 Stanley Cup. Scuderi finished the 2015-16 season with the L.A. Kings and never played in the NHL again.

Yet another ridiculous win for Rutherford.

Even More GMJR:

–Jan. 2016, Rutherford traded floundering David Perron and Adam Clendening for Carl Hagelin.

–Feb. 2016, he acquired Justin Schultz for a third-round pick.

–June 2016, the Pens received a third-round pick for always-injured Beau Bennett.

–November 2016, Rutherford flipped goaltender Mike Condon, whom he recently snared off waivers, for a fifth-round choice.

–Rutherford gave up a second-round pick and a middling prospect for Ron Hainsey.

–Traded fourth line winger Scott Wilson and a third-rounder for Riley Sheahan and a fifth-round choice.

–Another Coup de gras, Rutherford dealt an acquired fourth-round pick to Dallas for now-stalwart defenseman Jamie Oleksiak.

Even Rutherford’s maligned trade at the 2017 NHL Draft (Oscar Sundqvist and a first-round pick to St. Louis for Ryan Reaves) turned healthy dividends. In fact, for Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin, those dividends were very healthy.

In fact, most of Jim Rutherford’s deals have yielded more than they cost. The Penguins are now heavy favorites for a third straight Stanley Cup and look good beyond that. It’s been a masterful job by a man who was shoved out of Carolina and into the unknowingly waiting arms of the Pittsburgh Penguins.

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Pittsburgh Hockey Now Editor-in-Chief, formerly 93.7 The Fan, Sportsnet Hockey Tonight, NHL Home Ice. Catch Dan tweeting @theDanKingerski and the official @pghhockeynow account.

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BL Leech
BL Leech
4 years ago

I was initially sour on the Rutherford hire. After two Cups, count my mind as changed, and this article is spot on. GMJR might just go down as the best GM in Penguins’ history.

4 years ago
Reply to  Dan Kingerski

I know he needed to cut costs and was kinda hamstrung in what he could do but I can’t forgive GMCP for the Jágr and Kovalev trades. Those were both terrible. So I’d pick GMJR all day

4 years ago

Great job JR ! I wonder with a little cap space left if you could squeeze a defenseman somewhere…Johnny Oduya Ben Hutton !,

4 years ago
Reply to  Dan Kingerski

Dan where do you think they will look next .? By the way you’re coverage is outstanding !, I’ve been in the Carolinas for 13 years now and you guys by fa,r are the best link to Pens information !!

No Quarter
No Quarter
4 years ago

I’m my opinion I think he’ll grab a #6 dman on a salary dump for a pick or a mid prospect.
I m not comfortable with Ruhwedel or Hunwick as top 6.
Great depth guys but I’d take a cup experienced Oduya in a heartbeat over those two

4 years ago

Is Oduya a good enough skater to fit into the Pens system? The one thing Hunwick has is his skating ability. He was great against Ovechkin in last year’s playoffs.

4 years ago

Don’t forget that the Red Wings have already traded Scott Wilson to the Sabres just to show you how lopsided that Bill was where the Penguins got Riley Sheahan

4 years ago

Well done, this was a solid article, Dan.

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