‘This is now Rutherford’s team’: New Canucks prez has full control

New Vancouver Canucks president of hockey operations Jim Rutherford. (Keith Srakocic/AP)

VANCOUVER — There are two vitally important things to know about Jim Rutherford: he manages up but demands autonomy, and he wants to win now.

Just four days after firing general manager Jim Benning, Vancouver Canucks owner and chairman Francesco Aquilini announced Thursday that the 72-year-old Rutherford is the National Hockey League team’s new president of hockey operations.

Rutherford also has the title of interim general manager — ending the Stan Smyl GM era in Vancouver at a perfect 2-0 — and he will oversee the search for a more permanent replacement for Benning to work under the new president.

He was hired after meeting Aquilini at Rutherford’s home in Raleigh, N.C., and agreed to a three-year contract to build upon the Canucks’ excellent young core pieces and steer the franchise back to the Stanley Cup Playoffs.

Rutherford already has a new coach in 66-year-old Bruce Boudreau, who replaced Travis Green on Monday and has, at least for now, re-energized a team that won only eight of its first 25 games, sparking Aquilini’s intervention and the most eventful week of operational changes for the Canucks this century.

The addition of Rutherford, one of the most successful and respected NHL managers of his era, a three-time Stanley Cup winner who is already in the Hockey Hall of Fame as a builder, further fuels momentum for an organization that has gone from zero-to-100 in a hurry.

Game 3 of this brave new world for the Canucks is Friday night against the Winnipeg Jets, but in these formative days it looks like the positive, experienced, gregarious Boudreau is exactly the coach the Canucks needed after their shockingly bad first quarter.

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It will take far more than a few days to know if Rutherford is also the right choice, but he is an eye-catching one.

He resigned as the Pittsburgh Penguins’ general manager in January, four years after orchestrating consecutive Stanley Cup victories, for what was characterized then as “personal reasons.” But those reasons partly had to do with autonomy and what Rutherford felt was the growing encroachment by those above him into hockey operations.

He needed autonomy more than he needed the money, so Rutherford abruptly walked away.

Whatever the Aquilini family is paying him now, Rutherford wouldn’t be coming to Canucks without the owners’ promise of autonomy and full authority on hockey matters.

It doesn’t mean that Rutherford won’t be in frequent contact with Francesco Aquilini — part of what gave Rutherford an advantage in Pittsburgh over his predecessor, Ray Shero, was his ability to manage up — but the new president won’t need permission to make a trade.

And Rutherford is likely to make more than one.

One aspect of the new president that became clear Thursday when Sportsnet canvassed senior executives from other NHL organizations is that Rutherford is aggressive by managerial nature and fiercely driven to win.

This would be the case even if he were not 72 years old and working on a three-year contract.

He wants to win.

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That aggressiveness paid off in Pittsburgh, where his bold moves included surrendering the equivalent of two first-round picks in 2015 to acquire Phil Kessel from the Toronto Maple Leafs at a time when both the player’s salary and reputation were semi-toxic. Two straight Stanley Cups followed.

But Rutherford also traded Patric Hornqvist for Mike Matheson and signed Jack Johnson to a five-year contract that was bought out after two seasons. And in the Penguins’ last seven entry drafts, the GM left his scouting department with just one first-round selection. In last summer’s draft, after Rutherford left, the Penguins had one pick among the first 153 players.

Rutherford regularly sacrificed picks to add players to push for championships while the Penguins still had Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin and Kris Letang in or near their prime years.

The fundamental difference in Vancouver is that the players regarded as foundational are mostly in their early 20s. Elias Pettersson is 23, Quinn Hughes is 22. Bo Horvat and Thatcher Demko are 26. This core is not aging out for a while, but that doesn’t mean Rutherford won’t still be aggressive.

A rebuild, or even a re-set that requires a couple of steps back to fix the Canucks’ problems on defence, probably aren’t appealing options for Rutherford.

“I’ll be shocked if Jim’s not aggressive,” one NHL source said.

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It shouldn’t be understated how important it is for the Canucks to re-establish a president of hockey operations, a role that has been vacant since Trevor Linden was pushed out of that position in 2018.

There needs to be a buffer between ownership and the general manager, whose job is difficult and complicated enough without needing to keep the chairman apprised daily of hockey operations.

The president should do that. Given his experience and contacts, Rutherford will know exactly what he is getting into in Vancouver. The Canucks belong to the Aquilinis, but this is now Rutherford’s team.

Buckle up.

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