Jim Rutherford Under Pressure As Pittsburgh Penguins’ Season Looms


When you have two of the NHL’s top players, and a handful of other premier talents for that matter, there’s always going to be lingering seasonal pressure.

Arguably owning the most heat in the league, the Pittsburgh Penguins have yet to return to the Cup finals since 2009, and have wilted at the hands of teams that were seeded lower than them in five consecutive seasons.

But it’s not the simple fact they were ousted by clubs they should trump, it’s how they were defeated. Uncharacteristic turnovers, getting caught flat-footed, surrendering the most peculiar goals, and succumbing to penalties stemming from blatant frustration, if Pittsburgh had a way to lose a game, they’d find a way.

That led to ownership reigning down on the team and axing men who held prominent positions: Dan Bylsma and Ray Shero. In the blink of an eye, Pittsburgh fired their head coach and general manager. Analyze it whichever way you want, but GM Jim Rutherford is running the show now.

And with all the turmoil culminating over recent seasons, Rutherford’s stepped into a gig where he’s on the hot seat right from the get-go.

It’s unfair really, because Rutherford in no way shape or form is the reason why Pittsburgh choked five straight playoffs in a row, but due to the Pens oft-pressure to succeed – win the Cup – he’s walked into a situation where if events start to spiral out of control like in the past, unjustified blame towards him proceeds to ascend itself. Rutherford’s not in this alone, however, he’s re-created the team, and any failures in the 2014-15 campaign will be redirected back to him.

Rutherford’s hired Bylsma’s successor, Mike Johnston, and he’s shipped some popular figures off the roster, and watched prominent players walk off the roster. Yes, the usage of his limited financial flexibility have come into question with some of his signings, and his James Neal-to-Nashville deal has also been scrutinized, which means Rutherford’s roster has got some explaining to do come puck drop.

May 4, 2014; Pittsburgh, PA, USA; Pittsburgh Penguins left wing James Neal (18) skates on the ice before playing the New York Rangers in game two of the second round of the 2014 Stanley Cup Playoffs at the CONSOL Energy Center. Mandatory Credit: Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports

But this is what happens when you bow out of playoff contention embarrassingly for a number of years, the organization orchestrates drastic changes. And that’s what Rutherford’s done, made heavy alterations.

Some may argue Pittsburgh is only a few players away from reaching the finals – blah, blah, blah. Truth of the matter is, how many players rolled through the Pens over the past three seasons and stuck around long enough to enjoy another shameful postseason exit? Of course, that’s the NHL nowadays, players move from team-to-team more frequently now than ever. Yet, what Rutherford realized that many didn’t, was that the nucleus Pittsburgh had wasn’t working, and he had the stones to replenish what was a roster built to lose.

Sure, fans like to see high-powered talents join their club – it makes for awfully exciting theater. But sometimes, not all, an All-Star caliber team doesn’t translate to Cups. In a lot of cases, it’s about diversity within the skill-sets, and sufficient chemistry that manifests clubs into champions. Rutherford’s trying to implement this blueprint. He believes this team – by judging his signings/trades – lacked character and was unbalanced with too many players providing the identical tangibles as others brought.

Of course, fans are going to question certain front office strategies, because they’re fans; they’re truly concerned with the direction of their team and it’s wonderful. However, at times, they fail to visualize what it takes to be a winner, and fall in love with players that didn’t necessarily fit the bill, despite their prolific game/numbers. But the fans can see when their team is winning, and if Pittsburgh doesn’t show any sort of improvement, or any reason to believe they are, Rutherford’s under fire.

Sidney Crosby, Marc-Andre Fleury, Kris Letang, Evgeni Malkin, their pressure is always going to be prevalent, but they aren’t going anywhere. Perhaps Fleury, because of his contract, but you get the point. And yes, the players are ultimately responsible for how the team performs, but Rutherford’s moves are what people will fixate on.

Personally, at first, it seemed Rutherford’s compass was completely different than what I had expected, but after seeing the team reconstructed, and a phenomenal draft, his vision couldn’t be anymore clear to me. Alas, again, because Rutherford’s done so much to a club in so little time, the pressure is mounting.

I have faith in Rutherford and his fresh landscape. But joining an organization that’s morphed into the New York Yankees of the NHL is no cakewalk.