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How Penguins GM Rutherford went from presumed failure to toast of NHL

When GM Jim Rutherford took over the Penguins in 2014, many presumed he was bound for failure.

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Jim Rutherford is the toast of the hockey world.

Just two years into his tenure as the general manager of the Pittsburgh Penguins, he's being celebrated as the architect of the newly crowned Stanley Cup champions and the first man in half a century to lead two organizations to a title.

It's a remarkable achievement for the 67-year-old, one that's almost impossible to believe he pulled off. Especially for those of us who were convinced that he was destined to fail.

Rutherford's arrival in Pittsburgh wasn't exactly greeted with fanfare. The veteran executive was widely viewed as an uninspired choice when he was brought on to replace Ray Shero on June 4, 2014. Some thought even less of the hire.

Penguins bask in glow of Stanley Cup victory

There was good reason to be skeptical. Rutherford was coming off a 20-year stretch in Carolina that was highlighted by a Cup win in 2006, but ended with five consecutive seasons of missing the playoffs. When he walked away, he left the organization in shambles, awash in bad contracts and light on NHL-caliber prospects.

It should have been over for Rutherford then and there. But membership in the Old Boys Club has its privileges. When he was hired in June of 2014 after a “thorough search” by Penguins president David Morehouse, there was a sense that familiarity was his only qualification. It was an impression that Rutherford magnified when he revealed that he was essentially a placeholder in the position. His plan: hold the job for two or three years while he helped train his eventual successor. 

There's nothing wrong with hiring an experienced mentor to groom the next generation of managerial talent. For an organization taking a long-term view to growth, it's an ideal approach. But in win-now Pittsburgh? It felt like a stall tactic that would only waste prime years of Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin, Kris Letang and Marc-Andre Fleury.

Rutherford, of course, didn't see it that way. “I know my experience will be able to help this organization,” he said. “We can [win a championship] in the very near future.”

He had a core in place that could contend, but it didn't take long for Rutherford to identify some obvious organizational deficiencies. The Pens were tight under the cap. They were infamously short of wingers who could skate with Crosby and Malkin, and were equally in need of capable bottom-six forwards. But he also recognized that Pittsburgh's defense was built to win a war that was no longer being waged. And as a group, the Penguins simply couldn't match the pace of the top teams in the Eastern Conference.

How the Penguins Were Built

Jim Rutherford, GM:Hired 6/6/14, replacing Ray Shero Former GM of the Hartford Whalers/Carolina Hurricanes (2006 Cup champions (1994-2014).

Mike Sullivan, coach:Hired 12/12/15, replacing Mike Johnston. Head coach of AHL Wilkes-Barre/Scranton (2015). Ex-head coach Boston Bruins (‘03-06); assistant with Boston, Tampa Bay Lightning (’07-09), NY Rangers (’09-13), and Vancouver Canucks (’13-14). Former player development coach with Chicago Blackhawks (’14-15).


Marc-Andre Fleury, G

first round (#1)


Evgeni Malkin, C

first round (#2)


Sidney Crosby, C

first round (#1)


Kris Letang, D

third round (#62)


Beau Bennett, RW

first round (#20)


Bryan Rust, RW

third round (#80)


Tom Kuhnhackl, RW

fourth round (#110)


Derrick Pouliot, D

first round (#8)


Olli Maatta, D

first round (#22)


Oskar Sundqvist, C

third round (#81)


Matt Murray, G

third round (#83)


Chris Kunitz, LW

Anaheim with C Eric Tangradi for D Ryan Whitney (2/26)


Brian Dumoulin, D

Carolina with F Brandon Sutter and 2012 first round pick for C Jordan Staal (6/22)


Patric Hornqvist, RW

Nashville with F Nick Spaling for LW James Neal (6/27)


Ben Lovejoy, D

Anaheim for D Simon Despres (3/2)


Ian Cole, D

St. Louis for D Robert Bortuzzo and 2016 seventh round pick (3/2)


Phil Kessel, RW

Toronto with D Tim Erixon, RW Tyler Biggs, and future considerations for F Nick Spaling, RW Kasperi Kapanen, D Scott Harrington, 2016 third round pick and future considerations (7/1)


Nick Bonino, C

Vancouver with D Adam Clendening and 2016 second round pick for F Brandon Sutter and 2016 third round pick (7/28)


Trevor Daley, D

Chicago for D Rob Scuderi (12/14)


Carl Hagelin, LW

Anaheim for F David Perron and D Adam Clendening (1/16)


Justin Schultz, D

Edmonton for 2016 third round pick (2/27)


Jeff Zatkoff, G

Los Angeles (7/1)


Conor Sheary, LW

AHL Wilkes-Barre/Scranton (7/1)


Eric Fehr, C

Washington (7/28)


Matt Cullen, C

Nashville, (8/6)

Sobering challenge awaits newly elite Sharks next season

And then he got to work rebuilding the team in his image. He shipped James Neal, a pure shooter, to Nashville for the gritty goal-mouth presence of Patric Hornqvist and depth forward Nick Spaling. He created some cap space by allowing defensemen Matt Niskanen and Brooks Orpik to walk in free agency, then added Ian Cole and Ben Lovejoy at the deadline to reshape the blueline.

The Pens were different in Rutherford's first season, but not necessarily better. No one was particularly surprised when they were knocked out in the first round of the playoffs.

Rutherford got more aggressive in the summer of '15. He made his splashiest play at the draft, mortgaging key elements of the team's future (a first-rounder and Kasperi Kapanen, along with other assets) to obtain sharpshooter Phil Kessel from Toronto. Nick Bonino was acquired in a trade with Vancouver in late July along with a second rounder for Brandon Sutter and a third rounder. Veteran center Matt Cullen was signed as a free agent. After the season started, he sent David Perron (who he'd acquired the previous year from Edmonton) to Anaheim for tempo-changing winger Carl Hagelin. In mid-December, Rutherford swindled the Blackhawks out of mobile defender Trevor Daley, sending them stiff-legged blueliner Rob Scuderi in return. And then he shocked the hockey world by sending a third-round pick to the Oilers for Justin Schultz, a mistake-prone defender who many teams wouldn't have touched on waivers.

For someone who said the team didn't need sweeping changes, Rutherford sure spent a lot of time with a broom in his hands. Still, his rebuilt club was under water at midseason, weighed down by the overly cautious coaching of Mike Johnston.

A less confident GM might have carried on with the man he'd hired just 18 months earlier rather than admit he'd bet on the wrong horse. Not Rutherford. He claimed it and fixed it, replacing Johnston with AHL bench boss Mike Sullivan. 

Three Stars: Crosby dominant as Penguins win Game 6, Cup

Finally, everything started to click. Sullivan took off the shackles and imposed a system that played to the strengths of the players, rather trying to mask their flaws. He brought a few kids with him from the minors, Conor Sheary, Bryan Rust and Tom Kuhnhackl, who amped up the team's speed and intensity. And after some experimentation, he slotted Bonino between Kessel and Hagelin, forming the line that changed the nature of the team's identity.

At that point, Rutherford's work was done. All he had to do was sit back and watch his team mow down the Rangers, Capitals and Lightning before taking their play to another level in the Final against San Jose.

And there was no denying this was his team. Of the 20 players on the roster when the Pens clinched the Cup with that 3–1 win over the Sharks in Game 6 Monday night, just six were holdovers from the group that Rutherford inherited  in the summer of 2014.

Few thought he had it in him when he was hired. Just two years later, Rutherford has proved everyone else wrong. Including me.