Rutherford was 65 at the time and looked like he was headed toward retirement when he stepped down less than two months earlier after 20 years of running the Hartford Whalers/Carolina Hurricanes as president and GM. Rutherford’s plan for a reduced workload in an advisory role with the Hurricanes was upended when Penguins co-owners Mario Lemieux and Ron Burkle, and CEO and president David Morehouse, came calling and convinced him he had more to give.
“We liked Jim for his experience, but also for his youthful way of thinking about things, his unique perspective,” Morehouse said Wednesday. “Jim always thought outside the box. He was one of the first general managers I know that was looking at analytics. So I think that was what we were looking for then. I think now we’re looking for something similar.
“We’re looking for someone who can take this great group of players and hang another banner in our rafters.”
Rutherford helped hang Stanley Cup banners in PPG Paints Arena’s rafters in 2016 and 2017 but is stepping away from the game again at age 71. After being inducted into the Hockey Hall of Fame in 2019 as a Builder, Rutherford, who also won the Stanley Cup with Carolina in 2006, leaves behind an enviable legacy and difficult shoes to fill during the season.
“He won two Cups here, two consecutive Cups, a feat I don’t think will be repeated anytime soon in the [NHL] salary cap era,” Morehouse said. “He made the [Stanley Cup] Playoffs every year he’s been here. He’s in the Hockey Hall of Fame, in the fabric of the community of Pittsburgh already. The greatest compliment a Pittsburgher can pay someone from outside of Pittsburgh is he’s a true Pittsburgher.”
Assistant GM Patrik Allvin was promoted to GM while the Penguins search for Rutherford’s replacement. Though Morehouse said there is no timetable to complete the process, it doesn’t sound like Pittsburgh plans to wait until the offseason.
Taking over a team with two generational centers in Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin was intriguing to Rutherford in 2014 and should be to a likely host of candidates now. Crosby, 33, and Malkin, 34, are almost seven years older, but the objective is similar: to complete the retooling process Rutherford began.
After a reinvigorated Rutherford took the job, the Penguins revamped much of the supporting cast around Crosby and Malkin, acquiring forwards Phil Kessel, Nick Bonino and Carl Hagelin, and defensemen Justin Schultz, Trevor Daley and Ian Cole, among others. They also brought in coach Mike Sullivan after realizing the initial coaching hire under Rutherford, Mike Johnston, wasn’t a good fit.
They were all pivotal in helping Pittsburgh become the NHL’s first repeat champions since the Detroit Red Wings in 1997 and 1998 by defeating the San Jose Sharks in the 2016 Stanley Cup Final and the Nashville Predators in the 2017 Final.
“I don’t think I would have taken just any new challenge,” Rutherford said in 2016. “With the players they already had here and the core players, I felt that this was a place that I had a chance to win again.”
Rutherford and the Penguins haven’t been able to find the winning recipe since then, but it hasn’t been from a lack of trying. Pittsburgh turned over much of the roster, leaving seven players — Crosby, Malkin, forwards Jake Guentzel and Bryan Rust, and defensemen Kris Letang, Brian Dumoulin and Chad Ruhwedel — who won the Cup in 2017.
Players added this past offseason included forwards Kasperi Kapanen, Mark Jankowski and Colton Sceviour, and defensemen Mike Matheson and Codi Ceci. The Penguins also made changes to Sullivan’s staff after losing to the Montreal Canadiens in the Stanley Cup Qualifiers last season, declining to renew the contracts of assistants Sergei Gonchar, Jacques Martin and Mark Recchi, and hiring Todd Reirden and Mike Vellucci as replacements.
“We think the team Jim put on the ice is a team that can compete and can win,” Morehouse said. “We think our coaching staff is a staff that can get them there. For right now, we’re just playing hockey and I think that’s coming together.”
The Penguins (4-2-1) have been resilient after opening this season with two losses; they are 4-0-1 in their past five games and tied with the Boston Bruins and Philadelphia Flyers for second in the MassMutual East Division with nine points, two behind the first-place Washington Capitals. Whether it’s Allvin, who Morehouse said is a candidate to keep the job, or someone else, the marching orders for the next GM for this season and beyond are clear:
Win while Crosby and Malkin have some prime years left.
Crosby acknowledged after last season that the Penguins’ Cup window may be closing, saying, “With age, it’s a possibility.” So the Penguins are operating with an urgency Morehouse said will be reflected in the kind of GM they hire.
“We’re in a win-now mode and we’re going to continue to be in that mode until we’re in a rebuilding mode,” Morehouse said. “But for right now, we’re looking for someone who can continue having us work towards winning another Cup.”
The Penguins found the right someone in 2014 with their surprise hiring of Rutherford. Can they do it again?