Rutherford's Vision Starts Down the Middle

Friday, 06.06.2014 / 5:39 PM
Michelle Crechiolo

What would it take for Jim Rutherford to consider being a general manager in the NHL again after stepping down from that same role with the Carolina Hurricanes five weeks ago?

Getting his dream job with a particular franchise.

That’s what Rutherford called his opportunity with the Pittsburgh Penguins, saying the chance to run this organization is “really a dream job for most general managers.”

“I’m very excited about it, it’s a great opportunity,” he continued. “I’m excited about working with Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin and all the talented players that are around the Pittsburgh Penguins organization. This is a job that most GMs would like to have, and I am very lucky and very fortunate at this point in my career that I’ve been given this opportunity.”

Rutherford had served as both team president and general manager of the Carolina/Hartford franchise for the last 20 years, before stepping down from the latter position five weeks ago.

Working both of those jobs at the same time had become very difficult over the last two to three years, and the workload had started to wear on him. So Rutherford relinquished general manager duties to Ron Francis and stayed on in an advisory role as team president, with the thought that while he was willing to move further away from the game, if somebody called him about an open general manager position, he would consider going there if he had a chance to win the championship.

Well, the Penguins called, and the rest is now history.

“Obviously the fact that it was the Pittsburgh Penguins, it didn’t take me long to say yes,” Rutherford said.

Rutherford knows he has a chance to win it all here in Pittsburgh with the aforementioned talent that this organization has. And he believes his many years in the league as both a player (Rutherford played 13 seasons in the NHL as a goaltender, including parts of three seasons with the Penguins from 1971-74) and an executive will help them get there very soon.

“I have had a very blessed hockey career,” he said. “I played for a long time in the league – I was fortunate to play as a Penguin – and I’ve had a long run as a general manager. And I know that my experience in dealing with things will be able to help this organization get to our ultimate goal.

“I don’t think we have all the pieces here to get back to where the Penguins were in ’09, but with some changes – they don’t have to be sweeping changes – we can do this in the very near future.”

So what is Rutherford’s plan to get the Penguins back to the promised land?

First, Rutherford made it clear that he still has a lot to learn about his new team. And that’s understandable. Pittsburgh has a totally different way of doing things than Carolina did.

Rutherford said he has to get around the players, get training camp underway and get into the season a bit, and hopes that within a month or two (by Thanksgiving at the latest) he’ll have everything completely figured out.

But that all being said, of course Rutherford has a vision of how he wants to build this team – and it begins with his two elite centers Crosby and Malkin.

“In my opinion, one of the key things for a team to win the Stanley Cup is you have to be really strong down the middle,” Rutherford said. “And we have a really good head start at that.”

Rutherford’s biggest focus will be strengthening the Penguins down the middle, but he also feels the entire supporting cast up top has to be improved.

“I look at our fourth line players and some of those players are in double-digit minuses, and you can’t have that,” Rutherford said. “You have to have energy on your fourth line, you have to have penalty killers and you certainly have to have guys that are capable of playing defensively and not costing you that much on goals against.”

Rutherford may start addressing these issues come July 1, but wouldn’t commit to making any big splashes just yet.

“Free agency this year might not be as exciting because we’re up against the cap,” he said. “We’ll look at free agency as a way to make some changes on the team.”

Getting away from numbers and stats and moving more towards the intangibles, Penguins ownership told Trib Total Media they wanted to see more grit and character on the roster. Rutherford had an interesting outside perspective on that topic.

“Looking at it from the outside, I suspect that we have good character in that room, but it’s quiet,” he said. “It’s a quiet approach where you don’t have one or two guys that can stand up in the room and say, you know, this is what’s really going on. From a character point of view, I don’t think there’s an issue, but to have somebody that’s a little more vocal or a couple of guys I suspect that that’s probably needed.”

The thing to keep in mind is that this isn’t going to be a rebuild.

The Penguins are still a team with star players and a lot of the pieces in place. But they haven’t had the success they’ve wanted in the playoffs the last few years, and it will be Rutherford’s job to find the right head coach, add the missing pieces and construct a team that will win the Stanley Cup.

“I have one Stanley Cup, I have two Eastern (Conference) trophies, but there’s no feeling like winning the ultimate prize,” Rutherford said. “And I believe we can do it here. You have to have top players, you have to have key players, you have to have goaltending, you have to have coaching, you have to have all those things. And my job now is to come in and change some of those things that we need to strengthen in order to get to the end.”

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