Luke DeCock

Jim Rutherford’s second act secures place in hockey history – DeCock

General Manager Jim Rutherford of the Pittsburgh Penguins lifts the Stanley Cup after Game Six of the 2017 NHL Stanley Cup Final at the Bridgestone Arena on June 11, 2017 in Nashville, Tennessee.
General Manager Jim Rutherford of the Pittsburgh Penguins lifts the Stanley Cup after Game Six of the 2017 NHL Stanley Cup Final at the Bridgestone Arena on June 11, 2017 in Nashville, Tennessee. NHLI via Getty Images

They're going to have a hard time keeping Jim Rutherford out of the Hockey Hall of Fame now. With his third Stanley Cup as a general manager, including the first back-to-back Cups in the salary-cap era, Rutherford's legacy in the game was assured when his Pittsburgh Penguins won the Stanley Cup on Sunday.

Add these past two Cups to the one he won in 2006 with the Carolina Hurricanes, and he'll get a spot in Toronto along with Ron Francis and, if there's any justice, Rod Brind'Amour someday. Rutherford's longtime boss with the Hurricanes, owner Peter Karmanos, is in there as well. Two years ago, he napalmed bridges with his former general manager and onetime close friend by indulging in a scathing and dismissive offseason critique of Rutherford's work in Pittsburgh and his trade for Phil Kessel in particular.

“I do not have to take responsibility for Pittsburgh signing (sic) Kessel,” Karmanos said in July 2015. “Pittsburgh has no first-round picks anymore,” he added. “They traded their first-round pick from the year before, they traded their first-round pick for this year and now they've traded their first-round pick for next year. But they have Kessel, who may score as many goals as Alex Semin did.”

Seemed to work out OK for the Penguins.

Even with Peter Laviolette behind the Nashville Predators' bench, the Hurricanes' ties to the Cup were deeper, even beyond Rutherford. Former Hurricanes defenseman Ron Hainsey's long-awaited first playoff appearance concluded with a championship, and he was the first player to receive the Cup after captain Sidney Crosby. Hainsey then handed it to 40-year-old Matt Cullen, who had two stints with the Hurricanes and is now likely to retire on top.

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General Manager Jim Rutherford of the Pittsburgh Penguins hugs Ron Hainsey after Game Six of the 2017 NHL Stanley Cup Final at the Bridgestone Arena on June 11, 2017 in Nashville, Tennessee. The Penguins defeated the Predators 2-0. Joe Sargent NHLI via Getty Images

There were also two less prominent Carolina connections: Jason Karmanos, the Hurricanes owner's son and former Hurricanes assistant general manager, who eventually followed Rutherford to the Penguins' front office after being fired by his father; and trainer Chris Stewart, an assistant trainer with the Hurricanes in 2006 who picked up his fourth Stanley Cup ring in 12 years.

All of which is just more evidence of how special the core of the 2002/2006/2009 Hurricanes really was. If it's not players still out there winning Cups – Cullen, Justin Williams, Andrew Ladd, etc. – it's the amazing volume of players from those teams who are now involved in hockey in some way, in front offices, on coaching staffs or in broadcast booths. Some of the names and faces changed, but throughout that stretch it was a group that made up for what it lacked in raw talent with an excess of character – exactly what the current Hurricanes have been missing the past few years.

Rutherford did a remarkable job finding players who fit that mold for a long time. Then things went stale, and Rutherford retired as general manager and Ron Francis took over. And now Rutherford, starting with the Kessel trade, has been able to find the right pieces to fit around Crosby and Evgeni Malkin and make history.

At 68, Rutherford has earned the right to rest on his laurels. He has also earned the right to navigate the Penguins through the expansion process and go for a third straight. But whatever happens now, he has cemented a special place in the game's history for himself that goes far beyond being one of the first goalies to paint a design on his mask.

Luke DeCock: 919-829-8947, ldecock@newsobserver.com, @LukeDeCock

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