Thoughts: GM Jim Rutherford is the Worst, Best, and Somewhere in Between

By Meesh Shanmugam (@HockeyMeesh)

The End Result

Three weeks to the day that Ray Shero was fired, the Penguins have hired Jim Rutherford to be the new General Manager of the Penguins. Assistant GM / Interim GM Jason Botterill will remain with the team and has been promoted to Associate General Manager. Both Bill Guerin and Tom Fitzgerald will also remain with the team and both have been promoted to Assistant GM positions. Finally, Dan Bylsma has been fired. The assistant coaches remain with the team, but they are free to seek other positions and will be at the mercy of the eventual new head coach otherwise.

The Initial Reaction

The first thing we all learned this morning was that Rutherford was going to be hired as GM. That news, combined with no information on the future of Botterill, led to chaotic and mostly negative reactions. Of course, it was all mixed in with “at least it’s not Pierre” vs “I’d rather have Pierre.”

[See: “Transcripts of the Penguins’ GM Interviews (Spoof)” by Casey Johnston (@PensNationCasey)]

Admittedly, my ideal pick for GM was Julien BriseBois from Tampa Bay. He is very similar to Botterill with a little more education and a little less time spent on the ice. My thought process was that BriseBois had succeeded in his previous positions, would bring most of the same attributes as Botterill, and would bring a fresh face to an organization that clearly wanted change.

Based on that thought process, I was also content with the idea of Botterill becoming the permanent GM as well. The only big question for me was whether this franchise wanted to completely change the personnel or just send out Shero and Bylsma.

Inherently, when the Rutherford news came out, I was not pleased. His name had been leaked as a candidate just a couple of days ago and was good fodder for Jokinen/Staal/Sutter jokes initially.

I, like many, assumed that hiring Rutherford meant the loss of Botterill and a missed opportunity to hire a Botterill-type at least. Rutherford’s history, especially as of late, is not exactly inspiring. So in the end (of the beginning), it seemed like the choice for Assistant GM would make or break how this hiring would/should be judged.

Rutherford’s Background

Going way back, Rutherford is a former Penguin. He was a goalie in the NHL from 1970-1983 and played over 100 games with the Penguins early in his career. None of that matters for this, but you should know it anyways.

Rutherford became the GM of the Hartford Whalers in the summer of 1994 and continued in that position through their move to Carolina in 1997, a Stanley Cup Final appearance in 2002, a Stanley Cup win in 2006, and finally until he announced he was stepping down this past April after 20 years on the job.

He has often dealt with limited finances and ownership restrictions in a non-traditional market and his results have been spotty over the course of his tenure. How much of that can be blamed on his limitations from above…who knows.

To do a half-hearted investigation into Rutherford, I would suggest looking at four links:

1) Carolina’s current roster situation:  Carolina Hurricanes on CapGeek

It’s not pretty right now. There’s Cam Ward making $6.3 million in net for all of the Fleury debates. Eric Staal is making an eye-opening $8.25 million. Alexander Semin is entering the second year of a deal that will pay him $7 mil/yr for four more years. Jordan Staal, as we all remember, is making $6 mil/yr until 2023.

It’s safe to say there are some ugly contracts on the books for Carolina.

2) Carolina’s draft history:  Carolina Draft History on HockeyDB

There’s no need to go back to Niklas Nordgren (bonus points if you have any clue why I picked him) in the 5th round of 1997 to assess Rutherford’s draft history. Let’s just look at his time compared to Shero’s tenure starting in 2006.

Out of 6 picks (no 1st), only 1 has made it to the NHL. Defenseman Jamie McBain, currently with Buffalo, has played in 275 games and counting.

Out of 5 picks (no 2nd, 7th), 4 have played in the NHL. The group is highlighted by 1st rounder Brandon Sutter (415 games, now with Pittsburgh). It also includes winger Drayson Bowman (176 games), winger Chris Terry (13 games), and defenseman Brett Bellemore (72 games).

Out of 5 picks (no 3rd, 5th), 4 have played in the NHL. Centers Zach Boychuk and Zac Dalpe each have 96 games played. Meanwhile, defenseman Michal Jordan has played in 5 games and goalie Mike Murphy has appeared in 2.

Out of 6 picks (no 4th), 1 has played in the NHL. That would be 2nd round defenseman Brian Dumoulin, who has played 6 games with the Penguins.

Out of 8 picks (2 2nds, 2 3rds, no 5th), 3 have played in the NHL. 1st round winger Jeff Skinner (7th overall) has played in 259 games, defenseman Justin Faulk has appeared in 180, and 7th round goaltender Frederik Andersen, currently with Anaheim, has played in 28.

Out of 6 picks (no 5th), 1 has played in the NHL. 1st round defenseman Ryan Murphy has appeared in 52 games.

Out of 9 picks (no 1st, 2 2nds, 3 4ths), 0 have played in the NHL.

Out of 4 picks (no 2nd, 4th, or 7th), 1 has played in the NHL. Center Elias Lindholm, who went 5th overall, played in 58 games this past season.

Many of the picks made in these drafts, especially the more recent ones, are still in the system and will hopefully pan out for Carolina’s sake.

Overall though, out of 49 picks since 2006, 15 have played in the NHL. Of these 15, the only impact players have arguably been Jamie McBain, Brandon Sutter, Jeff Skinner, Justin Faulk, Ryan Murphy, and Elias Lindholm. McBain and Sutter were eventually traded away. Sutter (11th), Skinner (7th), Murphy (12th), and Lindholm (5th) were all taken with relatively high first-round picks.

Drafting is about luck, situations, and player development, so it will never be fair to judge a GM completely based on his drafts. I’m not exactly impressed though.

3) Carolina’s Trade/Free Agent History:  NHL Trade Tracker – Carolina

Rutherford’s transactional history is lengthy and it would take far more time than necessary to go through all of it. There’s plenty of good and there’s plenty of bad. It wouldn’t be appropriate to start in the summer of 2006 either as he made some very strong moves at the ’06 deadline to help Carolina win the Cup in 2006.

Here’s a link with the best and worst of Rutherford’s moves in Carolina:  “Jim Rutherford’s Best and Worst Canes Moves” from News and Observer

The first thing I notice is that almost all of the worsts are more recent than the bests.

4) Carolina’s Results:  List of Hurricanes Seasons on Wikipedia

Again, Rutherford probably deserves *some* slack based on the limitations he was given by ownership.

In the end though, it breaks down to this:

19 seasons
3 division championships (’99, ’02, ’06)
5 playoff appearances (’99, ’01, ’02, ’06, ’09)
3 Conference Semifinals appearances (’02, ’06, ’09)
3 Eastern Conference Final appearances (’02, ’06, ’09)
2 Stanley Cup Final appearances (’02, ’06)
1 Stanley Cup Championship (’06)

Those Stanley Cup appearances deserve respect. 5 playoff appearances in 19 seasons is troubling though.

Take the initial reaction, add it to Rutherford’s background overview, and things weren’t looking promising at all.

The Press Conference

When we reached the 1pm press conference, the mood quickly changed. Rutherford was announced as GM and we learned about the rest.

As stated above, Botterill was retained as the associate GM, while Guerin and Fitzgerald took over as assistant GMs. The retention of Botterill coupled with the news of Guerin becoming an assistant GM immediately changed the outlook for many, including myself. The Penguins would not lose their star pupil that everyone has touted for years and they were moving a fan-favorite another rung up the ladder.

As Rutherford said,

“Well, I feel that we have two or three guys here who are very close to becoming general managers. What I will do is give them big roles, a lot to say, and a lot of input into my final decisions. But at the same time, I know that I’m mentoring them. I would suspect — I mean, nobody knows what’s going to happen — but I would suspect that this term for me is probably two or three years here. It’s going to be up to ownership as to who replaces me, but certainly I will get to know these guys better, and I will recommend what goes on in the future. Especially Jason. He’s been here a long time. He’s a very bright guy. He knows the game. I know that he’s getting very close.”

That made this decision much easier to accept for many. Botterill still appears to be the eventual plan (or does Guerin jump past him one day?) and will learn much more as he works with Rutherford on just about everything instead of acting as assistant GM.

With the Botterill / GM question out of the way, Rutherford continued to make Pens fans happy.

He discussed analytics and how he has used them over the past few years in Carolina. He also addressed them in a way that I loved, as he admitted, “The analytics aren’t always right, and we’re not always right.” His plan to use analytics as a supporting tool and still trust his gut instinct is a nice compromise of both worlds.

His plan to eventually hire someone in hockey operations to focus on analytics (we have your back, Jesse Marshall, #HireJesseMarshall) is a step forward that most wanted to see.

Rutherford also discussed the previous regime (after confirming Bylsma was fired) and the current roster makeup.

The “Bylsma doesn’t make adjustments” crowd fell in love as Rutherford alluded to previous problems while talking about his expectations for a new coach:

“The coach is going to have to adjust to the style of players that we have. Because with the talent level of the Penguins, the Penguins can play whatever way you want. But certainly with the teams that we ultimately have to compete with, we’re going to have to have a coach who can make the proper adjustments during a game or a certain period of time in the regular season or during a playoff series. Obviously the Penguins can score and can score in bunches, but based on looking at the Penguins from a distance, because that’s where I was, I don’t think that they could make the proper adjustments against certain teams. So that’s going to be a key factor when I’m looking at a head coach.”

He won many others as he discussed, and ripped into, the 4th line,

“One of the key things in my opinion to winning the Stanley Cup is you have to be really strong down the middle. We have a really good head start at that. OK? Do you play in a series that you roll four lines? It depends how many injuries you have. It depends what team you’re playing. It depends how good their fourth line is. I will say I think our supporting cast has to be improved. I look at our fourth-line players and some of those guys are double-digit minuses. You can’t have that. You have to have energy on your fourth line. You have to have penalty killers. And you certainly have guys who are capable of playing defensively and not costing you that much on goals against. Like I said, the key is down the middle. We have a great start.”

If you wanted to blame the captain, Rutherford had a comment for that too,

“Well, I see the top six guys are very talented players. But from a character point of view or a leadership point of view, I really don’t know until I get through training camp and get into the season a month or so and get up to Thanksgiving. Give it a little time. Looking at it from the outside, I suspect that we have good character in that room, but it’s quiet. It’s a quiet approach where you don’t have one or two guys who can stand up in the room and say, ‘This is what’s really going on.’ From a character point of view, I don’t think there’s an issue. But to have someone who’s a little more vocal, or a couple of guys, I suspect that’s probably needed.”

In the end, Rutherford said ALL of the right things in the press conference, which quieted many of the initial reactions.

The Reformed Reaction

Now it’s time for the true thoughts portion of Rutherford’s hiring.

After several hours to think everything over, I am lukewarm on the decision. Rutherford’s past history does not impress me whatsoever, but it is partially rectified by the retention and promotion of Botterill and Guerin. Rutherford knows he won’t be here long, and if things go REALLY awry, Botterill can always be promoted after a year if necessary.

Rutherford has done a subpar job lately in my opinion, but he rarely lets things go REALLY awry, so I do not believe that is a true concern.

Another reason I want to give Rutherford a chance is because things will be very different in Pittsburgh than in Carolina. The Hurricanes have been one giant family, from Rutherford, to Ron Francis, to Rod Brind’Amour, to the Staals. In previous years, I have thought on more than one occasion that Rutherford was letting his heart get in the way of his head with how he treated that organization. A fresh start in Pittsburgh (former Hurricanes aside) will allow Rutherford to get back to critically thinking with his head. He is a smart hockey guy, but he faltered at times with strings attached. This is his chance to run a team, no strings attached, knowing he is just trying to succeed and teach in the short-run before moving on.

Despite that optimism, I still don’t believe the Penguins made the best move possible. Rutherford probably would have been around 4th or 5th on my list of GM candidates, but I do understand what the Penguins are doing.

Instead of going with an unproven assistant GM, they are going with a proven GM who can ideally turn their own unproven assistant GM into a proven commodity before he gets the job. This isn’t a simple situation; there are layers to all of it.

Beyond the layers in the actual GM position and role, I want to also point out the lovely marketing and public relations job done here.

Wanted a fresh start after Shero? You have one with Rutherford.
Didn’t want a fresh start? You still have Botterill too.
Not happy with either option? Hey, just stare at Billy Guerin, everyone loves him.
Didn’t like Rutherford to begin with? He fired Bylsma, discussed analytics, talked about adjustments, ripped on the 4th line, and mentioned the team needs more vocal leaders. At least one of those works for you, right?

There was basically at least SOMETHING for every single fan to grasp ahold of for hope, regardless of their background or outlook. That’s not by chance.

Overall, the Penguins took a relatively risk-averse route that should keep them steady but may not meet the standard that ended Shero/Bylsma. Personally, I would have taken a riskier approach in the hopes of maximizing Crosby and Malkin’s remaining big years with the danger of falling to a lower-end playoff team if things went awry.

Was this a good move? That depends on your risk-aversion. Was this the right move? We’ll know in 3ish years.

On a scale of 1-10 (1 – I hate this, 10 – Best thing ever), this is a 6 for me.

Moving Forward

Rutherford said that he has a short list of coaches in mind and that the search would begin a week from this upcoming Monday. There are GM meetings coming up this week, which is one reason for the delay. He said he plans to have a coach in place in time for free agency, but it may not be done in time for the draft.

While I don’t like the idea of going into draft day without a coach (you know, for drafting players and making trades that will affect the coach), Rutherford’s insistence that his head coach will have to adjust to his players theoretically makes it okay.

I have no proof of this, but I did feel like Shero catered to Bylsma a little too much when creating the roster towards the end. I like the idea of Rutherford creating a strong roster and finding the *right* coach to push it.

As for possible coaching candidates, here are the names I’ve seen mentioned so far:

  • From ESPN’s Craig Custance – Ulf Samulesson, John Stevens, Ron Wilson, Willie Desjardins.
  • From TribLive’s Josh Yohe – Rick Tocchet, Ulf Samuelsson, Mike Babcock, John Stevens, Guy Boucher, Rod Brind’Amour

I’ll take a longer look into the coaching list and do a write-up next week. I’ll then burn that write-up because Rutherford wasn’t on my original GM candidates post anyways.

As for the Penguins’ former/current staff:

  • Florida is expected to talk with Dan Bylsma about their coaching vacancy according to George Richards.
  • Many people have suggested Vancouver as a good fit for Bylsma, but I haven’t seen anything truly linking the two.
  • Carolina interviewed Jacques Martin earlier this week.

Leftover Thoughts

Not that I expected Jussi Jokinen to return, but it will be interesting to see how that relationship with Rutherford is after the waivers/pay-to-take-him-away saga.  More importantly, Brandon Sutter took the Staal trade quite hard according to several reports after his draft-day trade.  Professionals should put that aside, but it’s another relationship to watch closely. …

Ashley Chase (@AshleyChaseTV) brought up an interesting question of why Botterill wasn’t named GM with Rutherford acting as an associate or advisor to him.  My initial guess is money, but I’m very curious as to how the organization and the NHL sees Botterill on his readiness to be an NHL GM.  It seems like he’s second choice a lot, doesn’t it? …

Now all of the GM positions in the NHL are filled and Ray Shero doesn’t have a job.  I don’t think anyone guessed that would happen. …

There is a lot of critical talk about how the Penguins handled Dan Bylsma’s situation. Rutherford told the media that he didn’t get much of a chance to actually talk to Dan and it was basically just letting him go. It’s likely that one requirement for the GM position was, as many expected, that the new GM had to let Bylsma go.

Was it business-friendly for the Penguins to hold on to Bylsma for three weeks as other coaching vacancies (see: Washington) disappeared? No. Was it their right to do that? Absolutely. Bylsma was under contract and they had no reason to release him earlier than they wanted to. Hockey is a business, and guess what, business often favors selfish jerks. That’s sometimes part of being a successful business. The Penguins exist to win, not be nice and considerate. The latter qualities are perks if everything is going wonderfully.

Let’s hope that Jim Rutherford gets us back to “everything is going wonderfully” territory.

Thanks for reading!!  I’m sure there will be more thoughts to come in the next few days.