The Pittsburgh Penguins and Jim Rutherford’s GM tree is about to grow by one more. Reports out of New Jersey by NHL Network analyst Kevin Weekes indicate former Penguins assistant GM Tom Fitzgerald will lose his interim-GM tag to become the permanent boss. He’ll become the second active former Penguins assistant GM and fourth Rutherford assistant to become a general manager in the last six years.
That speaks well of the folks who have passed through the Penguins organization, doesn’t it? The Penguins tree didn’t have the best start, though.
Turmoil beset the Penguins organization in the summer of 2014. Gone was GM Ray Shero, but lingering was a dead man walking, head coach Dan Bylsma. Stories swirled as GM candidates appeared then backed away. NHL analyst Pierre McGuire coveted the job and received an offer, but only a one year tender. He was a bit insulted and broke ranks to discuss it publicly. Chaos ensued until Jim Rutherford stepped forward.
After the Penguins hired Rutherford, his first move was to fire Bylsma according to Penguins ownership’s wishes. He then traded 40-goal scorer James Neal to Nashville for an irritating fitness freak named Patric Hornqvist. A coach, Mike Johnston, eventually followed after several leading candidates wanted no part of the upheaval.
Before he took the Penguins job, understudy Ron Francis replaced Rutherford in Carolina. The current-Penguins GM publicly supported the move during Francis’s press conference, but the Penguins opening quickly rekindled Rutherford’s fire.
“Twenty years is a long time for me,” Rutherford said after Carolina gave him a paper promotion so that the team could hire Francis as GM. “I’ve been thinking about this for a few years and certainly the time is right now … if he wants to ask me a question, he can do that at his own risk.”
A few weeks later, Rutherford was the Penguins new GM. Francis is now the Seattle (insert name here) general manager.
Upon taking the Penguins job, Rutherford assembled a small dream team of assistant general managers. In his first season with the Penguins, Rutherford had Jason Botterill, Bill Guerin, Tom Fitzgerald, and Jason Karmanos beneath him.
Now, only Karmanos remains, not because the others didn’t work out, but because the rest of the league wanted the others. Back to back Stanley Cups in 2016 and 2017 didn’t hurt the assistants’ stock either.
Rutherford’s philosophy is easily summed up with his words to Guerin, whom the Minnesota Wild named GM last August, as relayed by Guerin.
“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.
Fitzgerald was promoted to assistant GM with the Penguins under Shero in 2009. After one season with Rutherford, Fitzgerald made the lateral move to New Jersey to reunite with Shero in New Jersey. Fitzgerald had more responsibilities and flexed his college recruiting prowess with such big-gets as defenseman Will Butcher.
Next, Jason Botterill got the big job in Buffalo, which was a risky move that eventually bit him on the backside this summer as the inept Buffalo ownership cleaned house after just a few years.
Regardless, Botterill got the GM job even though his patient, perhaps sometimes tepid, approach to push the Buffalo Sabres back to playoff contention was not immediately successful.
Bill Guerin was the last person the Penguins added to that assistant GM pool when they promoted him from within the organization.
Both Guerin and Botterill made deals with Rutherford in their first full year, but Francis has not yet. In 2018, Rutherford sent Conor Sheary to Buffalo as the asset, so Botterill would also take defenseman Matt Hunwick. Last February, Rutherford and Botterill undid part of that deal as Rutherford flipped Dominik Kahun to reacquire Sheary, along with struggling winger Evan Rodrigues.
Last January, Guerin made his first big move in Minnesota when he shipped Jason Zucker to the Pittsburgh Penguins for a first round pick (2020 or 2021), the Penguins top defenseman prospect Calen Addison, and fading winger Alex Galchenyuk.
It may take a little while longer for Rutherford and Fitzgerald to hook up, just as it’s taken years for Francis and Rutherford to find steady ground for a deal. The commonality between Fitzgerald and Francis was operating in the same division as the Pittsburgh Penguins. Now that Francis is leading expansion Seattle NHL into the fray, the two will likely make their first deal next summer in the 2021 NHL Expansion Draft.
We’ll see when Fitzgerald makes his “fair trade” with Rutherford. New Jersey has a long way back to contention and some big salaries on the ledger.