CRANBERRY TOWNSHIP, Pa. – The timing certainly seems interesting. The Pittsburgh Penguins extended general manager Jim Rutherford’s contract three years, through 2021-22 , Wednesday even as the team is mired in a 1-5-1 funk – “funk” being Rutherford’s term.
But that’s kind of the point.
Team CEO David Morehouse explained that Rutherford’s ability to boldly make moves – as he did just a little later Wednesday when he acquired Tanner Pearson from Los Angeles in a trade for Carl Hagelin – while focusing on winning and chasing more Stanley Cups makes him an ideal GM.
“He’s not afraid,” Morehouse said. “I like the fact that he doesn’t have fear of being wrong, and that’s a hard thing to come by in sports.”
Rutherford, 69, has made trades big and small as Penguins general manager, and he vowed to stay on top of things.
“Despite the fact that this hasn’t been a happy couple weeks for the Penguins, as a whole I am very happy to say that I’m staying, and I’ll do my best to fix what our problems are,” he said.
The Penguins are 7-6-3, their 17 points tied for second-worst in the Eastern Conference. But the contract extension certainly seems like a vote of confidence.
“I knew in November of ’15 that I wanted to extend him,” Morehouse said. “We knew he was the right guy from the day he stepped into the office.”
Rutherford is in his fifth season with the Penguins after replacing Ray Shero. The team won the Stanley Cup in 2016 and 2017 under Rutherford’s guidance.
He recalled that Morehouse essentially brought him from the brink of retirement.
“I remember that day that I was thinking about starting to taking it easy instead of working five years ago when I got the phone call from David,” Rutherford said. “That was probably the best phone call I ever got in my career.”
Hearing about that made Morehouse smile.
“That’s the best phone call I ever made, so it’s good to hear it’s the best one he ever received,” he said.
More Cups Still The Goal
Rutherford, who played as a goaltender for the Penguins in the early 1970s, said with star players such as Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin, Kris Letang and Phil Kessel – all over 30 – the team can still win championships.
“Whether we can come out of it this year and do it this year or whether we have to make some changes and do it for next year, I still believe we have a window here,” Rutherford said.
Adding 2009, the Penguins have won three Cups the past decade. The other two franchises who have won multiple Cups in recent years, Los Angeles and Chicago, have fallen off the pace.
“It’s hard to do,” Rutherford said of a club being a contender year after year. ‘As bad as we feel right now as to where the Penguins are and how we’re playing, I don’t think we’re at that point (where LA and Chicago are). Certainly over the next couple of months I’ll watch the situation a lot closer to see where we are.
“At some point in time, we’ll have to make some tough decisions on some good players that are favorites – and, obviously, most of our players are favorites because when you win a championship that’s what happens – and turn those players into younger players.
“But like I said, I don’t think, and I hope we’re not at that point. I just think we’re in a funk now. We’re a fragile team. We’re struggling. But for the most part I still believe in this team.”
Quite obviously, the team also believes in Rutherford.
Rutherford Still Going Strong
Morehouse said Rutherford complements team co-owners Mario Lemieux and Ron Burkle.
“Jim has an insatiable appetite for winning,” Morehouse said. “I think he carries Ron and Mario’s mission directly as they want him to.”
Morehouse said the contract extension got worked out over the past few weeks. He joked that he initially asked Rutherford to sign on through 2032 but settled on 2022.
Rutherford, when he was hired after a long tenure with Carolina, said he might just stick around for a couple seasons, groom a successor and call it a career. But he is enjoying things too much to step away.
Asked about remaining youthful as his 70th birthday approaches in February, he thought for a moment.
He said having a 10-year-old son, James, keeps him on the move.
“I think (it’s) the fact that the more you keep moving, the more you keep driving yourself, the better you feel,” he said.
“I’m kind of in a unique situation as far as somebody at this stage of my life.”