As the architect of a Stanley Cup team and someone who has devoted a significant chunk of his working life to the proposition that an NHL team can survive and thrive in North Carolina, Jim Rutherford has earned the right to call his shot.
The decision to leave his position as general manager of the Carolina Hurricanes should be his – and it will be. Owner Peter Karmanos is never going to fire Rutherford, who has held his position for longer than all but one of his peers, Lou Lamoriello of the New Jersey Devils. It’s up to him.
With the Hurricanes having now missed the playoffs for the sixth time in seven seasons since winning the Stanley Cup, under three different head coaches, with a roster in desperate need of improvement, there are many questions to be asked of this team.
First, though, Rutherford has to ask himself: Is he still the right man for the job?
While he operates under the considerable financial constraints imposed by Karmanos – the Hurricanes were 20th of 30 teams in payroll this season – Rutherford bears ultimate responsibility for several persistent and perennial failures, from developing players to addressing chronic weaknesses on defense, as well as the team’s overall lack of competitiveness over an extended period of time.
Four other franchises have made only one playoff appearance since 2006 while the Edmonton Oilers are in a seven-year drought since those 2006 finals. All five of those teams have changed general managers since 2006, four of them twice.
While the Hurricanes have drafted quality players who have moved quickly to the NHL from their college or junior teams – Jeff Skinner, Justin Faulk, Josef Vasicek, Andrew Ladd – they haven’t developed an impact forward or defenseman via the minor leagues since Erik Cole made his NHL debut more than a decade ago.
That has to happen for low-payroll teams to compete, and it played a critical role in this season’s collapse. A long line of highly touted forward prospects failed to make significant contributions and there was no depth in the system to address a series of crippling injuries on defense.
There are also serious questions about the team’s management of the salary cap, handing out a significant portion of the team’s self-imposed budget first to Jordan Staal and then to Alexander Semin while failing, for several seasons, to address what may be the worst defense in the NHL.
They have spent heavily to keep some players (Chad LaRose, Joni Pitkanen) while letting others leave over relatively small amounts of money (Cole, Ray Whitney). They have failed to use the leverage given them in the league’s labor agreement, signing Skinner in particular to a contract that helped fuel salary inflation leaguewide.
These aren’t wrong decisions, necessarily – the Hurricanes would argue that the big contract for Skinner reduced the chances he will leave as a free agent down the road – but collectively, they haven’t brought the team success.
The Hurricanes have made the playoffs less often in the past 10 seasons than they did in their difficult first five years here. Winning the Cup in 2006 is a massive exception, but it’s equally hard to look past the overwhelming mediocrity. It’s a testament to how much this market has grown that the Hurricanes continue to thrive here, with record attendance this season; a similar lack of success helped kill the Atlanta Thrashers.
Rutherford has given more than four decades of his life to the game of hockey. He has a Stanley Cup ring to show for it as well as the undying appreciation of hockey fans here. Yet he also knows as well as anyone that the Hurricanes are mired in a slump lasting several years. The Hurricanes need more scoring depth, more veteran leadership and a near-complete restructuring on defense, all chronic problems Rutherford hasn’t been able to solve.
He’s earned the right to decide whether he’s still the man for the job, but he also has the responsibility to ask that question of himself.