With the new NHL season underway, the Rutherford era has begun in Pittsburgh. During the off-season, after a disappointing finish in the Stanley Cup finals which saw the New York Rangers knockout the Penguins in a come-from-behind seven-game series, Penguins ownership decided it was time to shake up the management and head in a different direction. The team fired General Manager Ray Shero and a few weeks later cut ties with bench boss Dan Bylsma. Bylsma and Shero are credited for turning the Penguins into a winning franchise in the late 2000s which climaxed with a Stanley Cup victory in 2009. However, since that glorious playoff run, the Pittsburgh Penguins have yet to appear in a Stanley Cup final.
Over the summer, the Penguins opted to hire Mike Johnston, who guided the Portland Winterhawks of the Western Hockey League to a Memorial Cup appearance in 2013, to replace Dan Byslma. As Ray Shero’s successor, the Penguins ownership opted to hire former Pens goaltender Jim Rutherford, a name many Oiler fans are familiar with as he was the General Manager of the Carolina Hurricanes when they knocked off the Copper-and-Blue in 2006 for the Stanley Cup.
For a team hoping to recover the success it had in 2009, the hiring of Jim Rutherford poses an interesting choice. When one examines Rutherford’s recent history as GM of the Carolina Hurricanes, it’s worth noting that the Hurricanes went far under Rutherford’s management when they were in the post-season. The Hurricanes advanced to the Stanley Cup finals in 2002 and 2006, and came close again in 2009, before Rutherford’s current employer knocked off the ‘Canes in the Eastern Conference final. While the long playoff runs can be deemed as a remarkable credit to Rutherford, we must also note that each of the seasons that Carolina was able to exhibit such stellar post-season performances were the only seasons the Hurricanes managed to make the playoffs. Taking this into account, the question that hockey pundits may feel compelled to raise about Rutherford is consistency, or the lack of it. While Rutherford may share the Penguins ownership’s high expectations of taking home another Stanley Cup ring, he has to be able to make sure this team can earn a spot in the playoffs first before he can even think about hoisting Lord Stanley’s Cup over his head. Each season is a new season without guarantees.
While we may base our interpretation of Rutherford’s managerial competence off his history with the Carolina Hurricanes, the only other team he has ever managed, we must remember that success goes two ways. In the end the players you bring into your club need to perform if any sort of success is to be achieved. Before being hired by Pittsburgh, Rutherford dealt with circumstances which digressed from his current scenario in Pittsburgh. In Carolina, Rutherford had to manage a nucleus of players who struggled with their own individual form of inconsistency, a core which featured names such as Cam Ward, Eric Staal, Alexander Semin and Jeff Skinner. What bogged down Rutherford’s team in Raleigh was Cam Ward’s declining performance as the team’s number one goaltender, Eric Staal being too comfortable in Carolina despite high offensive numbers, Jeff Skinner’s inability to stay off the injured reserve and Alex Semin’s lackadaisical offensive performance. The Hurricanes also had a very mediocre defence. While the defence core was powered by Andrej Sekera and Justin Faulk, both of whom posted offensive numbers that stand as their career highs to date, they didn’t receive much help from veterans Tim Gleason and Mike Komisarek.
In Pittsburgh, Rutherford has what he didn’t have in Carolina. Sidney Crosby has managed to stay healthy since the concussion he suffered in 2011. He and linemates Evgeni Malkin and Chris Kunitz continue to remain a nightmare for the defence of opposing teams on a nightly basis, while Marc-Andre Fleury has been strong in between the pipes, at least during the regular season. To go along with the artillery up front, Rutherford also has a strong defensive core of Kris Letang, Christian Ehrhoff, Paul Martin and the young Olli Maata. Not only is there talent, there is also depth that exits in the form of Patric Hornquvist, Nic Spaling, Steve Downie and Brandon Sutter. If there’s one thing all the stars and role players on this Penguins team have in common, it’s that they’re ready to answer the bell for 82 games as reflected in the team’s repeated finishes near the top of the Eastern Conference. On a team with players ready to hold up their side of the bargain, it now becomes in part Rutherford’s and Mike Johnston’s job to hold up there’s; to make sure this Penguins team keeps its prowess rowing past 82 games in order to rack up the necessary 16 wins to recapture hockey’s most coveted prize.
So far this season, the Penguins are a promising 7-2-1. But with 72 games remaining in the season, stranger things have been known to happen than a complete nosedive ending in a missed post-season. Only time will tell if Rutherford is the missing ingredient in the Penguins back office that will help remedy their past playoff failures.
Media courtesy of slidingsideways on flickr through Creative Commons