At this point, whether or not the Pittsburgh Penguins complete their quest for Lord Stanley’s Cup, there’s something that needs be done by a lot of Pens fans.
Apologizing. Or at the very least, admitting they were wrong.
Who should that apology be directed toward? General manager Jim Rutherford.
After the Penguins were eliminated from the playoffs in June of 2014, team ownership got rid of then-GM Ray Shero and head coach Dan Bylsma.
Enter Rutherford, now 67, who at the time had just completed a 20-year run in the same post with the Carolina Hurricanes. It was a tenure that saw the 'Canes capture the Cup in 2006 before a serious decline, when the franchise missed the playoffs in the last five seasons of Rutherford’s reign in Raleigh.
The move was questioned in many circles — by fans and media alike — as being an old retread meant to be a place holder until a long-term candidate would emerge to fill the position.
In fact, Rutherford himself did little to dispel that notion when hired, stating initially he intended on only being in town for two or three years.
And after a first-round exit in 2015, many felt that number should have only been one.
Year One: Of course, there were other reasons why fans felt Rutherford should have been shown the door after 12 months on the job.
His first big move was hiring Mike Johnston, whose only head coaching experience at that point was six years at the helm of Portland’s Western Hockey League franchise.
In hindsight, the move was a mistake. Players didn’t respond well to Johnston and his particular playing style never seemed to fit. Not to mention that many felt Rutherford should have aggressively pursued highly successful bench boss Mike Babcock.
Some more questionable moves followed, such as the trading of James Neal to Nashville. Neal was preferred by fans because he seemed to finally be the winger star center Evgeni Malkin needed on his line. To Rutherford’s credit, that deal did land Patric Hornqvist.
There were also eventual duds, such as David Perron and Daniel Winnik. Many of the moves seemed to repeat Shero’s leverage-the-future approach.
There was also the salary cap bungling that led to the team playing with only five defensemen down the stretch before falling to the Rangers in five games in the playoffs.
Things didn’t seem to be getting better. The roster was overhauled and the team ended up getting eliminated a round earlier than the year before. Needless to say, sentiment in the Steel City was not in Rutherford’s favor.
What a difference a year makes: And then, in the summer of 2015, Rutherford started his redemption process.
It started with a huge splash. The Penguins were able to pull off a blockbuster deal that brought Phil Kessel to Pittsburgh. Kessel took some time to get going, but has beautifully become the team’s leading Conn Smythe candidate this year.
The key to this current run, though, may have been an under-the-radar move made weeks before Kessel was brought on board. One that has been just as valuable as any trade or signing.
The organization needed a coach for its American Hockey League club, the Wilkes-Barre Scranton Penguins. And Mike Sullivan, a former player and coach at the NHL level, was hired.
With the top-tier Penguins sitting outside of the playoffs in mid-December, Rutherford made the move to finally replace Johnston with Sullivan.
Sullivan’s approach of holding stars accountable and getting the team to buy into his fast, puck-possession system sparked a sensational turnaround that has the team close to dancing with Lord Stanley.
After Kessel, the next summer trade landed Nick Bonino, who has scored some incredibly clutch goals during this run, including the eventual game-winner late in Game 1 against San Jose.
The next big move was the absolute fleecing of the Chicago Blackhawks in December, when Pittsburgh sent declining defenseman Rob Scuderi to the Windy City in exchange for blue-line stalwart Trevor Daley.
A month after that, Rutherford rectified his Perron miss by sending him to Anaheim in return for speedy Carl Hagelin. The team skated circles around its opposition from then on.
Hagelin, Bonino and Kessel have gone on to form one of the most formidable third lines in the entire league.
Rutherford also added Matt Cullen and Eric Fehr for added bottom-six depth. While no doubt doing so with Sullivan’s input, the team also turned to a strong group of Wilkes-Barre players for added punch — names such as goalie Matt Murray and wingers Bryan Rust and Conor Sheary. Their contributions are beyond obvious to anyone remotely paying attention.
A vast majority of the roster, outside the “core four” of Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin, Kris Letang and Marc-Andre Fleury, was turned over. In fact, from the day he took over, only those four and Chris Kunitz, Olli Maatta and Brian Dumoulin were on the roster when Rutherford was hired.
Rutherford’s moves are so obviously at the forefront of this current playoff run that he is a candidate to win the NHL’s General Manager of the Year Award this season. Not too many arguments can be made against him.
So, no matter how it plays out from here, Rutherford is owed quite the apology from most of the base.
Should he earn another chance to hoist hockey’s holy chalice, that atonement gets bumped up to: ‘We’re really, really sorry.”
Reach Elijah Armold at firstname.lastname@example.org.