PITTSBURGH — It was only 26 days ago when it appeared that four general managers had perfectly positioned their NHL clubs to win the Stanley Cup.
Then, a week ago, it looked like two general managers had done so.
Now, Jim Rutherford stands alone, poised to do something that just isn’t done in the NHL, something Glen Sather, Brian Burke, Jay Feaster, Bob Gainey, Cliff Fletcher and Punch Imlach, among others, tried to accomplish but couldn’t. Something Lou Lamoriello and Peter Chiarelli are just starting to attempt.
The achievement? Win a Stanley Cup as general manager of one NHL franchise, then do it again with another.
Six months ago, of course, it looked like Rutherford, GM of the Pittsburgh Penguins, might not get the chance. The team was in deep trouble, Sidney Crosby was playing terribly and the 67-year-old Rutherford was being blamed for everything.
Now, one win away from his second Cup after capturing his first back in 2006 with the Carolina Hurricanes, Rutherford looks like the smartest guy in the room, the executive who understood what had to be done and did it.
That’s one explanation. The other is that even in the age of advanced analytics, building an NHL champion in the salary cap era remains more of an inexact science, or one plagued by randomness, than ever before. The difference between getting it right and getting it wrong can be ever so slight.
Rutherford was joined by Tampa’s Steve Yzerman, St. Louis GM Doug Armstrong and San Jose’s Doug Wilson at the start of the conference finals as hockey men who had outlasted the rest of the field.
Yzerman’s Lightning looked poised to make it to back-to-back Cup finals despite an injury to star forward Steven Stamkos and the curious case of Jonathan Drouin, but then Tampa fell to Pittsburgh. Armstrong and Wilson had both built their teams patiently over years and years, drafting intelligently and eschewing panic moves in favour of staying the course. In the end, the Sharks dumped the Blues.
That brought us to this Cup Final between the Pens and Sharks, and now it’s Wilson who looks like he’ll be the one coming up short, with his team trailing three games to one with Game 5 Thursday night in Pittsburgh, a town aching to have a local pro squad win a title at home.
Until now, of course, Wilson looked like he’d finally figured out the secret formula in his 13th year running the team. After missing the playoffs last year, he fired coach Todd MacLellan and brought in Peter DeBoer to take over.
He retained the ancient core duo of Joe Thornton and Patrick Marleau, even after Marleau demanded a trade. Wilson made a good, relatively cheap deal with Boston at the draft to acquire goalie Martin Jones and signed Joel Ward, Joonas Donskoi and Paul Martin as free agents.
Joe Pavelski became captain, something Wilson wanted but MacLellan didn’t. As the season moved along, he tinkered with his roster, adding veteran support players Dainus Zubrus, Nick Spaling, Roman Polak and backup goalie James Reimer.
Against the Blues, it all looked brilliant. Against the Pens, however, the Sharks have so far come short, behind in every game, their stars absent from the scoresheet. They’ve looked a step slow, raising the age-old question about whether Western Conference teams are disadvantaged in the Cup final because they travel so much more during the year than teams from the east.
Rutherford’s club was bounced quickly from the playoffs in the first round a year ago, and he set out in the summer to make sure that didn’t happen again. Pittsburgh acquired Phil Kessel and his huge contract from the Toronto Maple Leafs at the June draft in exchange for a first round pick and other futures.
Defencemen Ian Cole and Ben Lovejoy had been acquired in trades a few months earlier, and Rutherford continued to use the trade route to change his team at a time when many GMs lament salary cap complications that make it nearly impossible to swing deals.
Nick Bonino was added in a trade with Vancouver in late July along with a second rounder for centre Brandon Sutter and a third rounder. In mid-December, just after firing head coach Mike Johnston and replacing him with Mike Sullivan, Rutherford dealt stay-at-home defender Rob Scuderi to the Blackhawks for the more mobile Trevor Daley.
By January, the Pens were still stranded at 12th in the conference, seemingly going nowhere. Rutherford was under tremendous fire.
So, naturally, he kept trading.
Carl Hagelin came in from Anaheim, with David Perron going the other way. Justin Schultz, a big disappointment in Edmonton, arrived for a third round pick. Gradually, the Pens started to play better, and then they started to really roll. Past the Rangers. Past the Caps. Past the Bolts.
In Game 4 of this Cup Final, eight of the 20 players in the Pittsburgh lineup were Rutherford pickups from the previous 15 months, not including the injured Daley, but including free agents Matt Cullen and Eric Fehr. In goal was rookie Matt Murray, who Rutherford could have easily moved for short-term help at the trade deadline, but wisely chose not to.
So, with the Pens on the verge of a title and the Sharks such a disappointment, did Rutherford ultimately get it right, while Wilson got it wrong?
Not really. Both men did terrific jobs. These two teams are more closely matched than the final has demonstrated, but the Pens have performed better in this tight, low-scoring series than have the Sharks. San Jose’s offence has disappeared at the worst possible time.
Rutherford is being paid back handsomely for making the risky Kessel deal, far riskier than anything Wilson attempted, and you could say he was more aggressive in general than Wilson when it came to making moves during the regular season. Then again, his team was in crisis. Wilson’s wasn’t.
Rutherford would also tell you he’s blessed to have inherited Crosby and Evgeni Malkin, who have easily outperformed Pavelski, Thornton and Marleau. A telling moment in Game 4 came five minutes into the third when Marleau and his 546 career regular season and playoff goals bore in alone on Murray with a chance to cut a 2-0 Pittsburgh lead in half.
Marleau got a decent shot off, but not a great one. Murray caught it with his glove. The Sharks would later score in the third, but just once, and the Marleau-Murray showdown seemed symbolic when the final whistle sounded.
Patience by veteran GMs had kept both players with their respective teams, but Murray won that moment.
The difference between a GM getting it right and not getting it right can be that close. One player, one opportunity. One decision.