Pittsburgh Penguins GM Jim Rutherford – First Season Assessment


When the Pittsburgh Penguins began their General Manager search last summer, few had Jim Rutherford as the top candidate. It seemed almost guaranteed that Assistant GM Jason Botterill would take the throne after studying behind former GM Ray Shero.

However, maybe studying behind Shero is why the Pittsburgh Penguins decided to go another route.

NHL General Managers will take the brunt of criticism and blame if a team is built for failure. Especially when the team makes poor trade and free agent decisions. But, folks also have to realize that these gentlemen rely on pro scouts for a lot of this information too. There’s a lot of areas to both blame for mistakes and praise for successes.

Let’s take a look at some of Rutherford’s free agent acquisitions

F Steve Downie, $1 million (1 year)
F Blake Comeau, $700,000 (1 year)
D Christian Ehrhoff, $4 million (1 year)
D Taylor Chorney, $550,000 (1 year)
G Thomas Greiss, $1 million (1 year)

I’m sure you’ve noticed the trend. Rutherford did a great job of signing all of these guys to one-year deals. This is something that he isn’t praised nearly enough for. He walked into a situation where the team was up against the cap with too many veterans making too much money.

The only change I would have made in this situation is the signing of Christian Ehrhoff. It’s not that Ehrhoff isn’t worth the money, although his cap hit proved to be a burden due to his injury issues. However, the Pittsburgh Penguins simply didn’t need him. I would have been much more comfortable wagering on a scoring winger, or adding depth and leaving some cap space. If Pittsburgh’s young defensemen didn’t work out, he would then have some wiggle room to add a piece at the trade deadline.

Overall, I’d grade Jim Rutherford’s free agent frenzy as a B+. I can’t go quite as high as an A- as I believe the signing of Thomas Greiss was unnecessary as well, considering how well Jeff Zatkoff played in a backup role the year prior.

Now, we enter where things went haywire from most media and fan perspectives.

Rutherford’s first trade as Pittsburgh Penguins GM was shipping off 40-goal scorer James Neal to Nashville for a highly skilled and gritty Patric Hornqvist. Also, in return for Neal, Rutherford acquired depth forward Nick Spaling. While Neal was someone I assumed would be in Pittsburgh for the long haul, I liked the acquisition of Patric Hornqvist. My complaint about this deal was bringing on Nick Spaling as an RFA, and then signing him to $2.2 million. Way overpriced for a player of his caliber.

Another trade that I’m still fond of, despite his performance down the stretch, is the acquisition of David Perron for a first-round pick and Rob Klinkhammer. David Perron is essentially what the Edmonton Oilers are hoping that first-round pick turns into. When injury news was released, it turns out that Perron was playing with a bruised rib, which can obviously be a big reason for his shot issues.  He’ll be just fine and is a very good top-six wing.

I could go on and on about all of Rutherford’s trades. But, I honestly only have an issue with one. Of course, it’s the dreaded swap of Simon Despres for Ben Lovejoy.

Jim Rutherford stated that he too questioned that deal when it was made, but they wanted a right-handed shot and felt that they have plenty of young defensemen. While that’s true, only Olli Maatta was more NHL-ready at the time. I bought-in originally, as Lovejoy was said to be a much different player than we saw during his first tenure with the Pittsburgh Penguins. But, the pro scouts missed big-time on that one.

Also, wanting a right-handed shot isn’t as important as keeping a big, skilled, two-way defenseman such as Despres. He wouldn’t have been the ultimate difference maker by any means. But, he’s a guy that would great to have as he develops over the next couple years.

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At this point, after hearing what Jim Rutherford had to say in his press conference, I feel that he’s confident in his plan going forward. He was candid, responded truthfully, and admitted to his mistakes.

But, he still made those mistakes. Overall, I think Rutherford took over a Pittsburgh Penguins team with serious cap issues and built a solid team. When you lose players like Pascal Dupuis, Kris Letang, and Olli Maatta for the season it tends to derail your process. Compound that with the mumps outbreak and Hornqvist and Malkin missing extended time, and you have a really tough situation on your hands.

For my overall grade of Rutherford’s first season with the Pittsburgh Penguins, I’ll go with a C+. You simply can’t trade away good, young defensemen for worse, older defensemen. You also have to be smarter about using long-term injury-reserve instead of allowing your staff to rush Christian Ehrhoff back in the lineup. Placing him on LTIR when the injury originally occurred would have been outside of the final ten games and allowed them to call up reinforcements.  It was baffling how poorly this regime managed the cap toward the end of the season.

I’ve said on multiple occasions that this team simply needs tweaking, not a complete overhaul.  It sounds like Jim Rutherford believes the same thing.  He also seems to have full ability to use whatever buyouts he see’s as necessary, which means he can rid himself of Rob Scuderi.  Unless the Pittsburgh Penguins have a disastrous injury situation again next season, there’s no excuse for not having a true contender in Pittsburgh for the 2015-16 season.

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