The Good, The Bad, The Ugly: Jim Rutherford’s time in Pittsburgh

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Hosted by
Tyler Weeks

Pittsburgh sports fan trying to share my passion with others through podcasting and writing.

It has been a week since Jim Rutherford stepped down as Penguins’ General Manager. To say that it was a shock to everyone is definitely an understatement. No one is quite sure of the reasoning for Rutherford’s resignation, though rumors have been speculated. I don’t want to get into that, though. I want take a few minutes to talk about some of the polarizing moments in Rutherford’s tenure as GM.

Rutherford was a roller coaster. There were moments where it seemed as if he could do no wrong. On the other hand there were moments that fans wanted to grab their pitch forks and bring a mob outside of PPG Paints Arena. One’s thing is for sure and that’s when Rutherford had his eyes set on someone he did everything possible to try to land his man. Never kept his cards close to the chest and was very open which is quite a rare quality of a GM nowadays.

It took Jim almost no time to get fans riled up when he traded James Neal for Patric Hornqvist just 21 days into his tenure. James Neal, a former 40 goal scorer, was coming off another season averaging over a point per game for the Pens. To trade Neal for a guy who was picked dead last in the 2005 NHL Entry Draft seemed like a surefire downgrade. What in the world was he thinking? Well as it turns out Rutherford knew exactly what he was doing. The Penguins lacked a net front presence and got exactly what they needed from Horny. A fan favorite for years and a large factor in securing back to back Stanley Cups. Jim’s time as GM would come full circle when he dealt Hornqvist to Florida in October of last year.

Building a Back-to-Back Champion

From Christopher Hanewinckel, USA TODAY Sports

In 2015 Rutherford was still trying to dig the team out of the hole that Ray Shero and Dan Bylsma dug them into. Playoff mediocrity had haunted the Penguins since they had won the Cup in 2009. Coming off another embarrassing first round exit in the playoffs the team needed big changes. Those changes came in the 15-16 season. Fired head coach Mike Johnston for Mike Sullivan, man did that guy suck. Brought in guys like Phil Kessel, Nick Bonino, Carl Hagelin, and Matt Cullen. He even traded Rob Scuderi for Trevor Daley, talk about highway robbery. He added youth to the roster with the call ups of Bryan Rust, Conor Sheary, and Tom Kuhnhackl.

This team was young, skilled, and more than anything fast. Man did these guy fly up and down the ice. I have never seen a playoff performance for the Penguins quite like a did in 2016. Just total domination of every opponent through speed and relentless effort on the puck.

2016, 2017 Titles

The Penguins won the Stanley Cup in 2016 and Rutherford won the Jim Gregory General Manager of the Year Award for his brilliance in the construction of the roster. He brought back essentially the same team into the following year. Almost no turnover which is unheard of for a Stanley Cup champion nowadays. Calling up Jake Guentzel during the 16-17 campaign just seemed unfair. Finally a skilled winger that can play with Sid. So the Pens called up another young player but was that it? Really no big splash move for Jim? Nope. The biggest move at the trade deadline was for Ron freaking Hainsey who actually turned out to be pretty good as the Penguins went on to win their second consecutive Stanley Cup.

With back to back Cups the Penguins had made history. The first and only team to win back to back in the salary cap era. Jim Rutherford had delivered for Pittsburgh. The players and coaches won the games, but Rutherford was the architect of these teams. He drew the blueprint and put these players in a position for success. Needless to say they capitalized on the opportunity.

Why Ryan Reaves?

The Penguins are back to back Stanley Cup champions. All is good in the city and it took only twelve days for Jim Rutherford to rain on everyone’s parade. Trading a 1st Round Pick and Oskar Sundqvist for Ryan Reaves was never a good idea. For starters, Jim was effecting the identity of the Penguins. The team was built off speed and skill. Ryan Reaves is the exact opposite of both those things.

No offense to the guy himself, awesome dude, but a 1st round pick for a guy who was going to average 6:45 TOI and only score 8 points in 58 games with the team? Get out of here. “But he’s going to protect Sid!” Please, don’t give me that crap. You have to be on the ice with Sid in order to protect him and Reaves was never going to sniff a chance on the top line. He was a fun guy to watch fight on the ice, sure, but in todays game that’s pretty much meaningless. Wasn’t worth the pick and and was the first move in a few years as GM that had really made the fanbase question what Rutherford was thinking.

Trading for Derick Brassard

Here’s the thing…on paper the Penguins had the best center depth in the entire league after Rutherford made the trade that brought Derick Brassard into a Penguins sweater. In reality, that was the worst trade that Rutherford ever made as GM of the Penguins. You trade away Reaves, who I didn’t care about except for the fact that its the guy you just traded a 1st round pick for the summer before, so what was the point of that trade in the first place? Oh and you trade away yet another 1st round pick, quite a regular move for Rutherford at that point. Then you also add on two more picks and a goalie prospect. All for Brassard, a pick, and a couple scrubs.

Its not totally Jim’s fault for the trade not working out. Brassard had an injured groin during the 2018 playoffs but then carried a sour attitude the following year because he wasn’t getting as much ice time being a third line center and wanted to be on the top power play. Give me a break. You’re playing on a team with Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin. Sorry dude, you’re not playing more than them. Ever. It just never worked out. What could have been one of Rutherford’s best trades turned out to be his worst. Eventually Brassard was traded with Riley Sheahan for Nick Bjugstad and Jared McCann. At least Jim got something for him, right?

The Worst Signing Ever

From The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

I don’t think I’m being dramatic when I say signing Jack Johnson to a 5 year deal was Jim Rutherford’s worst move as general manger. He sucked. I can’t even imagine what was going through Jim’s head when he was thinking about giving him that contract. It’s not like this was a guy who was young and had some upside. We’re talking about a defenseman who had one out of twelve NHL seasons with a non negative Corsi%. This pattern held true with his time on the Penguins.

Jack Johnson was the worst player on the ice and everyone knew it, except for Jim Rutherford. He would always praise Jack and say that he gets too much hate. Maybe Rutherford was starting to get dementia because I have no clue where he saw a good hockey player EVER when Johnson was on the ice. He was a human traffic cone out there. And don’t get me wrong I’m sure Jack is a very nice guy but there is no way you give a nice guy who can’t play defense a 5 year contract at $3.25M AAV. Maybe Rutherford felt bad and was trying to help him get back all the money his parents stole from him, who knows. When Johnson was bought out last year I’m pretty sure you could hear a sigh of relief throughout Pittsburgh.

The Zucker Trade Was Great

One of the last big moves that Rutherford made while GM of the Penguins was trading for Jason Zucker. Let me tell ya, I was and am still all for this trade. Jason Zucker was a much needed addition to the Penguins Top 6. The team had been connected to a Zucker deal for a few weeks before Jim pulled the trigger. The biggest thing to love about the move besides the skillset that Zucker brought was that Jim wasn’t trading for a rental. This was an investment for the future of the team. Zucker had the remainder of the 19-20 season plus an additional three years left on his contract. Well worth the 1st round pick, an underperforming Alex Galchenyuk, and a defensive prospect in Calen Addison.

This was the first big move that Rutherford had pulled the trigger on that I had no reservations with or at least the move didn’t make me question what the GM was doing. The future is bright for Zucker on the Penguins and this move ensured that the team will have plenty of skill at wing in their Top 6 for seasons to come.

Rutherford’s Legacy

We may never find out why Jim Rutherford stepped down as GM of the Penguins. However, if we learned anything from his time with the team its that Rutherford was never afraid to speak his mind. So who knows? As Penguin fans I think we should be nothing but grateful for the man. Sure, he made a lot of deals the drove us insane. At the end of the day, he brought the team two Stanley Cups. He delivered on what he was brought in to do, win. Penguin fans should be thankful for Jim Rutherford for the rest of their lives because without him Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin, and Kris Letang would still be looked at as underachievers with one Stanley Cup. Thanks for the lifetime memories, Jim.

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