A little more than two years ago, Jim Rutherford stepped down as general manager of the Carolina Hurricanes, accepting an advisory role, facing an uncertain future at age 65.
“There are a lot of emotions when you’ve been in a place for a long time,” Rutherford said.
That he soon became general manager of the Pittsburgh Penguins, that he has made wise personnel moves the past two years, gotten the Pens into the 2016 Stanley Cup Final and now stands three wins away from hoisting the Cup is more than anyone – including Rutherford – probably could have expected or imagined.
The Pens and San Jose Sharks faced off Monday in Pittsburgh in Game 1, the Pens winning 3-2 on Nick Bonino’s late goal. The victory came just a few days after Pittsburgh’s exciting seven-game series against the Tampa Bay Lightning in the Eastern Conference finals.
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Rutherford, in an interview, said it has been a “pretty hectic time, with not much sleep” and he wouldn’t want it any other way.
Every NHL team wants to still be playing in June. It was that way for Rutherford in 2006, when the Hurricanes topped the Edmonton Oilers in seven games to win the Cup and give North Carolina the state’s only major-league championship.
“A special year, a special run,” Rutherford said.
Rutherford assembled that Canes team, signing such free agents as Ray Whitney and Cory Stillman before the 2005-06 season and later adding forwards Doug Weight and Mark Recchi through trades. Coach Peter Laviolette had the Canes playing fast, always pushing the puck.
“Jim made the right moves, everything meshed and we had the right group of guys, all determined to win,” said Rod Brind’Amour, the Canes’ captain in 2006.
Named the Pens’ GM in June 2014, Rutherford inherited such Pens mainstays as Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin, Marc-Andre Fleury and Kris Letang. But he has since reshaped the roster, making some trades that were not universally praised by Pens fans or the media – or, in one case, by his old boss, Hurricanes owner Peter Karmanos Jr.
When Rutherford traded for Toronto Maple Leafs forward Phil Kessel last July, Karmanos panned the deal, saying Kessel might not score as many goals for the Pens as Russian forward Alexander Semin had for the Canes in 2014-15.
Semin, who had a career-worst six goals, was Rutherford’s last major free-agent signing as GM of the Hurricanes. A few hours before criticizing the Pens trade, Karmanos approved a $14 million buyout of Semin’s contract.
Kessel had 26 goals and 33 assists for the Pens this season and has been terrific in the playoffs. Not that Rutherford takes vindication from it.
“I can relate to Phil Kessel,” Rutherford said. “He was in Toronto for a long time and it takes time for the emotions to go away when you leave. For me, those emotions were not as high this year as they were a year ago.”
Nor does Rutherford, one of three finalists for NHL general manager of the year, say he feels a sense of redemption. The Canes had missed the playoffs five straight seasons when Rutherford stepped down in April 2014. It was, he said, time for a change.
“I wish the Hurricanes all the best,” he said. “(Canes GM) Ron Francis is a good friend and has done a terrific job in building his team with good, young players. I’m still connected to Raleigh and I love it there.”
Francis, in turn, said he’s happy for Rutherford, who he said gave him the “opportunity to learn the business and grow in the business” as an assistant GM for the Canes.
“We have a strong friendship,” Francis said Tuesday. “I’m rooting hard for him.”
Rutherford sees similarities with Canes’ 2006 champions. Pens coach Mike Sullivan, like Laviolette, is a blunt type who employs an aggressive playing style. There is balance in the Pens’ four lines and the defensive corps, headed by Letang, has done what is needed although now is without injured Trevor Daley.
Matt Cullen, a veteran center on the Canes’ 2006 champs, is a very veteran center for the Penguins at 39 and a player Rutherford signed as a free agent.
“The character guy who can come into a room and help get you through the tough times,” Rutherford said.
There’s also a rookie goalie, only 22, who has become a sensation in the Stanley Cup playoffs.
It’s different here, with the position I have. With Carolina I oversaw the business and the hockey side, the whole operation. Looking back, I do not know how I did that.
Pittsburgh general manager Jim Rutherford
The Pens’ Matt Murray, like the Canes’ Cam Ward in ’06, took over in net when Fleury went out with a concussion. In 2006, Ward stepped in for Martin Gerber, who had been the Canes’ No. 1 goalie all season before falling ill as the playoffs began. When the playoffs ended, Ward was the Conn Smythe Trophy winner as the playoffs MVP.
“We felt Matt could handle it,” Rutherford said. “We had him last year in the American (Hockey) League, where he had been sensational and set records. I made the decision to keep him there this season so he could play games and develop and not just sit behind Fleury, with the thinking at the (NHL) trade deadline we’d bring him up. That’s the way it played out.”
Much of what Rutherford has tried has played out well. After a sluggish start this season, Rutherford didn’t hesitate in firing coach Mike Johnston – whom he had hired in 2014 – and bringing in Sullivan, the coach of the team’s Wilkes-Barre/Scranton AHL affiliate
“He changed the way the team played,” Rutherford said. “We became more of a puck-pursuit team and better in transition. (Sullivan) connected with the players well.”
Especially with Crosby, the Pens captain whose offensive production spiked quickly under Sullivan.
Believing the Pens needed more speed, Rutherford traded for forward Carl Hagelin and Daley during the season. The Pens brought up Conor Sheary and Bryan Rust from the AHL – both scored Monday against the Sharks.
Rutherford, Carolina’s president and general manager for 20 years, made it to the Stanley Cup Final in 2002 with an overachieving Canes team, but ran into a Detroit Red Wings team filled with future Hall of Famers. He was 57 in 2006 when the Canes lifted the Cup.
“It’s different here, with the position I have,” he said. “With Carolina I oversaw the business and the hockey side, the whole operation. Looking back, I do not know how I did that.
“Here, the focus is just on hockey. There’s not as much on your plate. You can appreciate it a little more.”