GM Jim Rutherford Already Outshining Ray Shero?


After some tumultuous years that saw the Pittsburgh Penguins repeatedly rank as one of the top regular season teams only to be quickly ousted come playoff time, the Pens’ ownership group decided to clean house last summer – starting with the removal of Ray Shero as General Manager.

Taking over the role was Jim Rutherford, former longtime GM of the Carolina Hurricanes. While the move was scrutinized at first, as was the beginning of Rutherford’s tenure, it has become clear that the veteran manager has been an excellent addition for the Pens as he’s put together one of the strongest Pittsburgh teams of the Sidney Crosby era.

Since taking over the reins of the club on June 6th of last year, Rutherford’s moves have significantly transformed the Penguins both up front and on the blue line.

The key moves are well-known. Rutherford kicked off his Penguins career by making a bold trade that sent away All-Star winger James Neal while bringing in hard-nosed forwards Patric Hornqvist and Nick Spaling.

Despite losing a true talent in Neal, the Pens immediately reaped the rewards of the trade as Hornqvist clicked immediately with captain Sidney Crosby, posting 13 goals and 29 points (and a whopping 120 shots) in his first 33 games in Pittsburgh. The fact that they got the responsible and reliable Spaling in the deal as well was simply a bonus.

Rutherford’s other key move came more recently when Pittsburgh dealt Rob Klinkhammer (who was acquired along with a conditional 2016 fifth-round pick from Arizona for defensive prospect Philip Samuelsson) plus a 2015 first-round pick to the Edmonton Oilers for winger David Perron.

The move has not only been a success so far (Perron has posted 5 goals and 7 points in 6 games as a Penguin) but could end up being the most important addition of the season come playoff time.

Adding such capable, talented wingers to complement Pittsburgh’s elite centres has surely been the greatest success of Rutherford’s short time in Pittsburgh, but his effect on the roster extends far beyond the team’s top-six.

The new manager also beefed up the team’s bottom-six with the astute signings of Blake Comeau and Steve Downie, who have both looked excellent for the Pens thus far, while re-signing reliable center Marcel Goc.

He improved the blue-line notably as well with the signing of Christian Ehrhoff (who has spent significant time on the team’s first-pairing) for a very reasonable $4 million over one year.

Jan 13, 2015; Pittsburgh, PA, USA; Pittsburgh Penguins right wing Steve Downie (23) takes the ice against the Minnesota Wild during the first period at the CONSOL Energy Center. The Penguins won 7-2. Mandatory Credit: Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports

One of Rutherford’s earliest decisions as manager was his choice to give defenseman Simon Despres a bigger role this season, prompting him to re-sign the young defender to a two-year, $1.8 million contract.

Despres has responded by posting a career season and earning his place among the team’s top four defensemen.

While it’s too early to judge Rutherford’s moves regarding the Pens’ goaltending (he extended Marc-Andre Fleury for 4 years/$23 million and brought in backup Thomas Greiss for $1 million), Fleury’s All-Star season is making the move seem better and better.

The success of Rutherford’s tenure in Pittsburgh will ultimately be decided by whether or not his Penguins can capture a Stanley Cup come June, but considering the pieces he has put in place, it’s looking more and more like the Pens will be a lethal club once they get their last few healthy bodies back on the ice.

His predecessor holds the advantage in terms of putting together a championship squad and bringing in quality players like Neal, Marian Hossa, Pascal Dupuis, and Chris Kunitz, but Shero’s shortcomings were well-documented as well.

Through only seven months in his new position, however, Rutherford has worked to dutifully address his team’s needs and with a now-lethal top-six, reliable bottom-six, solid defensive corps and (for the moment) quality goaltending, this team is one with all the pieces necessary to make a deep postseason run.

Most importantly, Rutherford has leaned more towards adding players like Hornqvist and Perron, who can play long-term roles, rather than simply renting big names (Jarome Iginla and Douglas Murray, anyone?).

Now the onus will be on another key set of Rutherford’s additions (head coach Mike Johnston, assistant coach Rick Tocchet, and assistant coach Gary Agnew) to utilize their talented players and maximize their skill en route to a 2015 championship.

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