Jim Rutherford has quickly found a new job, a new challenge.
And it’s with one of the Carolina Hurricanes’ divisional rivals.
Rutherford, who stepped down as the Hurricanes’ general manager April 28, was named Friday the general manager of the Pittsburgh Penguins. After 20 years with the Carolina franchise, he’s moving to a new team.
“This is a job most general managers would like to have,” Rutherford said. “I feel very lucky, very fortunate I was given this opportunity.”
Rutherford, 65, said he was given a three-year commitment from the Pens but said he could stay longer.
“If three years is how it works out, fine,” he said. “But if I’m healthy and going strong after that, and the right thing is to continue, I’ll do that.”
The Penguins fired general manager Ray Shero on May 16 after being ousted from the Stanley Cup playoffs by the New York Rangers. On Friday, they fired head coach Dan Bylsma, who led the Pens to the 2009 Stanley Cup.
Rutherford served as Hurricanes general manager and president before being succeeded as GM by Ron Francis. At the time, Rutherford said the job had been taxing and the decision was made months in advance, but hinted he might have interest in other NHL jobs should they arise.
The Pens came calling. Rutherford said he interviewed for the job last Saturday and was offered it Wednesday.
“I wasn’t planning to jump back in this quickly,” he said. “I’m not sure I would have jumped this quickly if other teams had called.”
Both the Pens and Canes, members of the Metropolitan Division, are searching for a new coach and competing to make the best hire. Francis fired Canes coach Kirk Muller a week after taking over as GM.
Rutherford said there might be some overlap in the candidates but added, “I need one coach and Ronnie needs one coach. There are enough available.”
Hurricanes owner Peter Karmanos Jr. said he gave the Pens permission to speak to Rutherford, who had two years remaining on his contract.
“Jim’s my best friend and I’m very happy for him,” Karmanos said. “He has been the face of the Hurricanes and we will miss him. The fact we’ve built such an exceptional organization is a testament to how good he was at his job.
“As far as I’m concerned he’s one of the best general managers in the league. This is great opportunity for him. There are not many teams he would have talked to.”
Rutherford oversaw the franchise relocation to North Carolina in 1997, helped establish the Hurricanes in a college sports market and put together a Stanley Cup winner in 2006. A former NHL goaltender, he has been active on league committees and is well-respected by his peers.
Pens president and CEO David Morehouse cited Rutherford’s “class and dignity” in Friday’s announcement. Morehouse said the Pens began with a list of 30 candidates, brought nine to Pittsburgh for interviews and had four finalists.
“Jim’s resume was tough to top,” Morehouse said. “We’re lucky he said yes.”
One of the finalists is believed to have been Jason Botterill, an in-house candidate who has been promoted to associate GM and will be groomed by Rutherford as a possible successor.
“Jim did a wonderful job mentoring Ronnie (Francis),” Karmanos said. “That’s why teams like Pittsburgh wanted him to come, to mentor some of their young people for that position.”
Francis said he will miss being able to bounce ideas off Rutherford and listen to his advice.
“Certainly if he was around here, he would have been a guy that I talked to and leaned on with his experience,” Francis said. “I’m happy for him. It’s a good opportunity for him, something he wanted to do. I wish him well in all the games except when they play us.”
The Canes have missed the playoffs the past five years. Asked about that Friday during the press conference, Rutherford noted goaltender injuries and other factors, but also said the “business model” of the Pens and Canes were far different.
Rutherford has said the decision to step down as GM was his to make. He said Friday the past two or three years had been “very difficult,” especially in his dual roles as GM and president.
“The stress level he had been feeling … I was worried about him,” Karmanos said. “And I told him when we play Pittsburgh I plan to sit and talk to him and if I think he’s getting stressed out again, I’ll let him know, as a friend. He’s going back into the pressure-cooker.”
Karmanos said he planned to step in as Hurricanes president, at least in the short term.
“We need a top-notch business guy in that position,” Karmanos said. “That’s one thing we have lacked is someone whose focus is on the business side and not on both business and the ice. That would allow (Francis) to concentrate on the hockey side.”
Rutherford has an investment stake in the Hurricanes, but said he expects the league will rule he must sell his share.
“I suspect I’ll be getting my money back,” he said.