It’s not every day a general manager steps down from his position in the NHL, and certainly not just seven games into a season with a 4-2-1 record.
Jim Rutherford’s decision to resign as GM of the Penguins on Wednesday shocked the hockey world. In his seventh season with the team, and after two Stanley Cup wins, the news was sudden and, given the times, concerning.
CEO David Morehouse made it clear on his media availability, though, that the decision was not health-related and happened fast.
“The discussion was last night,” Morehouse said about how long this was in the works. “I had a discussion with Jim, just Jim and I. Jim had his mind made up.
“There was nothing with this team currently or the coaching staff currently configured that is any different than any of the other teams we’ve had…There was nothing different in the form of dialogue. And I don’t think there was any one thing that led to Jim resigning.”
After the 2013-14 season, Rutherford stepped down from his position as Carolina Hurricanes GM and into a retirement that lasted no more than two months before he joined the Penguins.
He arrived at an interesting time, too. Dan Bylsma was relieved as head coach and the Penguins, still led by a similar core to what you see today, were seemingly at a crossroads. Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin, Marc-Andre Fleury, Kris Letang — all of their stars were still in their prime, but rather than become a New York Islanders-esque dynasty that won Cup after Cup or was at least right there every season, they had won four playoff rounds in the previous five seasons. The furthest they advanced in that time was to the Eastern Conference Final, where the Boston Bruins rolled over them in four games.
Malkin became no stranger to the off-season trade rumour talk. Whether or not the Penguins should take a step back to retool around Crosby was a debated point.
Rutherford, though, doubled down on his star core and began adding. Patric Hornqvist was his first trade acquisition and mid-way through his first season David Perron was picked up from the Edmonton Oilers for a first-round pick. Rutherford made four more trades around deadline season with an eye on playoff depth, the most notable pickup being Ian Cole.
Rutherford’s first playoff run with the Penguins ended with a single win, but they were about to be fully back.
Phil Kessel was acquired from the Toronto Maple Leafs in the 2015 off-season, and in Pittsburgh, he thrived as a supporting scorer instead of the go-to star. Nick Bonino was next, and mid-way through his second season, Rutherford acquired Carl Hagelin. Suddenly the HBK line (Hagelin-Bonino-Kessel) was in the house. The three finished first, fourth and fifth in team scoring during that 2016 playoff run, and were a key part in the Penguins reclaiming the Stanley Cup.
Then they repeated the next season.
Nuts to the idea of rebuilding a star-heavy team.
As Rutherford departs six-and-a-half years later, the Penguins are interestingly in a similar spot to when he first arrived, though a few years older. They haven’t gotten out of the second round since claiming the 2017 Cup and actually haven’t technically won a game in a playoff round in either of the past two years. They were swept by the Islanders in 2019 and lost in the qualifying round, 3-1, to the Montreal Canadiens in the summer bubble.
Crosby and Letang are 33. Malkin is 34. There isn’t a seemingly endless amount of time left for these players anymore. After next season, Malkin will need a new contract, if he doesn’t test free agency. And if the Penguins are fading from contention again, at this stage, will a move to a new GM spur some sort of re-tool, an adjustment that may result in a step back if it means giving Crosby and Co. a better stretch run?
Don’t count on it.
“We’re not in rebuilding mode,” Morehouse said. “We’re in a win-now mode and we’re going to continue to be in that mode until we’re in a rebuilding mode. We’re looking for someone who can come in and have us continue to work toward winning another Cup.
“The criteria (for a new GM) is the same criteria we’ve had here for the last almost 15 years, is to win the Stanley Cup. We’re looking for someone that’s going to be able to come in, take a very talented team with a very good coaching staff, and take it as far as they can take it.”
Patrik Allvin, who has worked his way up from European scout, to director of European scouting, and to assistant GM with Pittsburgh this season, will carry the interim label and, according to Morehouse, will be one of the candidates considered for the full-time job.
Morehouse did not put a timeline on when the next GM would be hired, but noted he had already taken calls.
With the 2021 Penguins off to a decent start, there are still potential cracks in the foundation. Tristan Jarry has struggled without Matt Murray to share the crease, Malkin is not feeling it yet (three points in seven games) and the offence ranks 22nd in 5-on-5 shots per 60 minutes.
There are the recent playoff shortfalls, the fact the team has made one first-round pick in the past six years. And they already don’t have their own first pick in the 2021 draft.
But there’s also the optimism that comes with having players like Crosby and Malkin on your team, and how Jake Guentzel has developed into a significant producer, or how Bryan Rust has carved out a nice role for himself in the top six.
“We think the team Jim put on the ice is a team that can compete and win,” Morehouse said. “We think our coaching staff is a coaching staff that can get them there.”
Whoever the next GM is will be tasked with the same expectations faced by a Hall of Famer nearly seven years ago, with a younger roster that had more runway. The Penguins rebuild will eventually arrive, but it seems when it does, it won’t be because they chose it.