The rap on Pittsburgh Penguins GM Jim Rutherford during his early days with the team in 2014-15 regarded his independence. Despite several assistant general managers, he acted autonomously. Rutherford may have received input from his circle but not consensus. And he made a few debatable moves which burned the team, including dealing a first round pick for David Perron and cap management forced the Penguins to play with just five defensemen for a couple of weeks late in the season.
Of course, the Penguins could do worse. It was Rutherford who began to pull strings in the summer of 2015. Phil Kessel arrived via trade. Rutherford used his horse trader magic to acquire Carl Hagelin for Perron. Most impressively, Rutherford found a trade partner for $3 million defenseman Rob Scuderi, who was no longer an NHL quality defenseman and he added important Stanley Cup piece Trevor Daley in the process.
Those moves not only won one Stanley Cup. They propelled the Penguins to two Stanley Cups. And it was Rutherford who hired now-head coach Mike Sullivan to be the WBS Penguins coach after Sullivan spent nearly seven years as John Tortorella’s assistant.
That move turned out pretty well, too.
Thursday, Wilkes-Barre/Scranton head coach Mike Vellucci was also named to serve as the WBS GM, which was one of the duties held by former assistant GM Bill Guerin, who left last week to become the Minnesota Wild GM.
After Guerin’s departure, the 70-year-old Rutherford has only long-time aid Jason Karmanos as an assistant general manager. Karmanos is an analytics guy who also oversees the amateur scouting staff. After 15 years as an executive with the Carolina Hurricanes and now five with the Penguins he’s not generally seen as a person in line to be an NHL GM.
The move Thursday to fill Guerin’s helm of the WBS Penguins with the head coach indicates Rutherford does not have a ready candidate to elevate to the AGM post.
Pittsburgh Penguins Management
Without Guerin, it does not appear there will be a second set of hockey eyes looking down on the ice or around the league. In fairness, at this late stage of the summer, available candidates are not plentiful but there are several experienced folks floating around, such as Ron Hextall.
Vellucci is a capable AHL GM and coach as he guided the Carolina farm club to the Calder Cup championship last season while serving in the dual roles. The WBS Penguins roster is mostly complete after an off-season of work to restock the team, which missed the playoffs last season for the first time in nearly two decades.
Per the Penguins press release Thursday, Vellucci spent the previous five seasons as the assistant general manager and director of hockey operations for the Carolina Hurricanes. He oversaw player development and scouting. During the past two seasons, Vellucci also served as the Charlotte Checkers’ head coach with a record of 97-43-8-4. But unlike his position in Carolina, the Penguins didn’t elevate Vellucci to assistant GM.
And despite a two-week process in which Minnesota first interviewed Guerin and sources expressed bright optimism to PHN that Guerin would get the job, the Penguins have not yet replaced him.
Now it’s Jim Rutherford and only Rutherford. The high-profile assistant GMs such as Tom Fitzgerald who left to take the same position under Ray Shero in New Jersey and Guerin are gone.
It wasn’t an aggressive power-play or even an intentional move by Rutherford, but attrition. Don’t misunderstand. The only rub around Rutherford has been that he occasionally acts independently. There has never been criticism or whisper of Rutherford’s personality or competence; only the usual fan base and media grumblings which follow every GM in every sport after every move.
Now Rutherford stands alone to guide the Penguins. The duties, views, and ultimately, power consolidated around him. It may sharpen the arrows of his critics or the praise of his supporters.
The perceived success or failure of the Pittsburgh Penguins impending moves to sign RFA defenseman Marcus Pettersson and get under the salary cap just got a little more interesting.