Perhaps this summer Pittsburgh Penguins GM Jim Rutherford should be less candid or less blunt. Just this once. Right now, it’s not helping.
For my early fans when I returned to Pittsburgh and finally had a small foothold in the local media scene beginning in 2014, you may recall I strongly defended the hiring of Pittsburgh Penguins GM Jim Rutherford, and his performance. While the internet howled and screamed, after years in this crazy sport I knew Rutherford. He was an occasional guest on my radio shows and didn’t mind chirping me on at least one occasion. He built a Stanley Cup team in Carolina and one other which won the Eastern Conference but he also lost on a couple of gambles. He was a solid GM but found himself in a bad situation and fledgling market which couldn’t attract free agents without the stench of overpaying.
In the last five years, I have criticized his job performance only on one previous situation.
The last time I criticized Rutherford’s performance with real negativity was the summer of 2017 when the Penguins considered third line center replacements for Nick Bonino. I knew then, as I know now, how important that situation was to the lineup. Greg McKegg and Riley Sheahan were the choices. Yoi and double yoi. Otherwise, I’ve been able to follow the Penguins GM’s logic and the process. While not every move was my cup of tea, they also didn’t warrant many harsh critiques either (cue the Jack Johnson zealots. The Twitter temper tantrums have become amusing though).
This summer, Rutherford appears intent on stoking the fire of uncertainty.
Just as he quelled Evgeni Malkin rumors with honest comments to our colleague Josh Yohe in the Athletic, he ripped open the potential for massive upheaval and trades just a couple of days later. While a Malkin trade seems only remotely possible, a Kris Letang deal has persisted on the fringe of the rumor mill for years.
So, just a few days after protecting two of his big three, Rutherford admitted to 93-7 the Fan, he wasn’t actively shopping the pair but he would listen to offers.
That’s GM speak for, “Go ahead, make me an offer.”
Now, cue the anti-Kris Letang crowd. It’s been a lonely couple of years since St. Marc-Andre Fleury left and his detractors couldn’t credibly pile on Matt Murray after singing his praises like the Mormon Tabernacle Choir, so…Kris Letang, you’re up! You suck–just ask them.
But, I digress.
The Penguins will not be able to upgrade Kris Letang at anything close to his $7.25 million salary. I cringe at what Penguins fans would do to Norris Trophy nominee Brent Burns who plays a riskier game than Letang and is more loose with the puck. Why do Penguins fans hammer Letang for turnovers, and a high-risk game when it yields nearly a point per game, yet dance around the image of Phil Kessel and his defensive indifference like a golden calf?
But, I digress again.
Rutherford fed the beast of negativity with just one line. Within hours, it was spread around the blogs, newspapers and chat boards. And rightly so. Of course, every GM will listen to offers on all players. ALL PLAYERS. I doubt GMs treat phone calls from other GMs like a robocall about your credit card debt.
Doubling the error is Letang’s media sensitivity. He hears and reads a lot of it. Or at least he used to.
So, a locker room which struggled to gel, and a team which Rutherford flatly said never came together as a team, will deal with stars who were put out on the clothesline by their organization.
Yeah, that won’t help.
Even on a smaller scale, Rutherford poured gasoline on the Jack Johnson fire. The fan negativity is growing as unhappiness gets redirected towards him and the volume gets so loud that more and more simply accept Johnson’s unsuitability as fact. Instead of maintaining his anger or resistance to that idea, Rutherford told the radio station, “It was Maatta or Johnson.”
Oh great. Now those same unhinged fans who are recruiting more have ammunition. Johnson will be seen as almost being dumped and how many million more times will we hear, “they should have traded Johnson, not Maatta!”. And Rutherford will be seen as not dumping him but leaving him to twist in the wind.
There are other ways to let GMs know Malkin or Letang could be available. There are the in-person GM meetings. He may ask rival GMS about their star players then not recoil at the ask. The ratio of conversations on a daily basis which we never hear about probably ranges close to 90%.
And if the general manager’s willingness to listen on Malkin or Letang is discovered, the worst that could happen are media reports. The exact same reports we have now.
Irritated or anxious players generally don’t create a great room. If Rutherford wants his team to become close-knit again, he will play a role. For the first and only time, this time, Rutherford should not be so honest.