Jim Rutherford took over as general manager of the Hartford Whalers in 1994, oversaw the team’s move to North Carolina in 1997 and put together teams that won three division titles, two conference championships and the Stanley Cup in 2006. His tenure included some great moves as well as a few not-so-great ones, certainly more of the former than the latter.
Best trade: In January 2002, Rutherford sent oft-injured and frequently wandering defenseman Sandis Ozolinsh and his massive contract to the Florida Panthers for Bret Hedican and Kevyn Adams, who would play essential roles on two conference championship teams and a Stanley Cup champion while cleaning up one of Rutherford’s own missteps. Honorable mention goes to beating the rest of the NHL to Doug Weight in January 2006 without giving up very much to do it.
Worst trade: History may yet put trading Brandon Sutter and a top-10 pick for Jordan Staal in this spot, and there are few other candidates because this is unquestionably Rutherford’s strongest suit. For the moment, trading Sami Kapanen to the Flyers for the dismal Pavel Brendl and depth defenseman Bruno St. Jacques is No. 1 – a paltry return for a popular player who had many good years left.
Best free-agent signing: Rutherford’s ability to convince Ron Francis to come to North Carolina and exorcise the demons of Hartford in 1998 did wonders for the fledgling franchise’s credibility. The team went to the playoffs in three of the next four seasons, led by Francis, whose impact on the Hurricanes is immeasurable. Collectively, the signing spree on either side of the lockout – Matt Cullen and Frantisek Kaberle before, Cory Stillman and Ray Whitney after – deserves mention.
Worst free-agent signing: It’s hard to imagine the future of the franchise had the Red Wings not matched the Hurricanes’ ridiculous $38 million offer sheet for Sergei Fedorov in February 1998. (In Rutherford’s defense, it was pushed by owner Peter Karmanos.) The Fedorov money ended up going to Francis that summer. Tomas Kaberle would be in this spot had Rutherford not quickly dumped his contract on the Canadiens.
Best re-signing: Getting Rod Brind’Amour to sign a long-term contract extension before training camp in 2001. Brind’Amour arrived in the Keith Primeau trade in January 2000 determined to get out as soon as possible. After his first full season, he was in for the long haul, and the Hurricanes were never the same again.
Worst re-signing: There was nothing wrong with giving Alexander Semin $7 million. Giving him the security of a five-year contract was baffling – and the Hurricanes paid the price in Rutherford’s final season. The string of inflated contracts for Chad LaRose cannot be overlooked either.
Best deliberate inaction: In the summer of 2000, Rutherford let Paul Coffey, Gary Roberts, Sean Hill and Andrei Kovalenko walk as free agents and left Robert Kron exposed in the expansion draft – five of the team’s eight top scorers – to much consternation. The Hurricanes not only made the playoffs, but brought Hill back by trade a year later to contribute to 2002’s run to the Stanley Cup finals.
Worst deliberate inaction: In the summer of 2010, the Hurricanes thought Ray Whitney was no longer worth top-line money at age 38 and let him depart as a free agent. Whitney scored 61 goals over the next four seasons, and his leadership and personality were sorely missed. There’s also a lifetime achievement award in this category for an entire generation of useless Hurricanes backup goalies.