Few Eastern Conference general managers can match Jim Rutherford’s run with the Carolina Hurricanes from 2001-09 (seven total seasons).
During that span, the Hurricanes advanced to the conference finals three times, won the Prince of Wales Trophy twice (conference champions) and captured the Stanley Cup in 2006.
Most of those teams were underdogs and overachievers.
After this regular season concluded, Rutherford stepped down as general manager after 20 years in that capacity, while remaining as team president. The Hurricanes replaced him with Ron Francis, who had been waiting in the wings for nine years.
Over the last few years, Rutherford said, the job "really wore on me."
On Friday, Rutherford was named the general manager of the Pittsburgh Penguins, saying it was a "dream job for most GMs."
In a number of ways, Rutherford’s task is the inverse of what it was in Carolina, getting a team that is often considered the favorite … but in the last five seasons, underachieved in it’s goal to win the Cup.
At 65, Rutherford’s scope is short-term, as he plans on staying for only two or three years. In associate general manager Jason Botterill and assistant general managers Bill Guerin and Tom Fitzgerald, Rutherford said the organization has three potential quality successors.
Unlike the Hurricanes, the Penguins are a team that spends to the NHL’s salary cap. The Penguins also possess some of the biggest names in hockey — namely Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin.
According to the website CapGeek.com, which tracks NHL salary information, the Penguins have $60.2 million in payroll committed to 14 players next season, while the Hurricanes have $51.2 million committed to the same number of players.
The Penguins’ number does not include a contract that needs to be negotiated with restricted free agent Brandon Sutter, a player Rutherford once traded from the Hurricanes to Pittsburgh in exchange for Jordan Staal.
At present, the cap is expected to be set at $71.1 million for the 2014-15 season.
Rutherford, who began his public remarks by thanking Hurricanes owner Peter Karmanos, alluded to the different dynamics between the two teams and their markets.
"Clearly, the business model between the Carolina Hurricanes and the Pittsburgh Penguins is different," he said. "You’ve been around long enough to figure out what I’m saying but I have nothing but respect for the Hurricanes and the growth of hockey in Carolina and I think they are on the right track."
In Pittsburgh, Rutherford is stepping into a situation in which the local fans and media appear skeptical. His predecessor, Ray Shero, was popular and successful.
The organization was criticized locally for the long wait in hiring Shero’s replacement; and when the name of polarizing broadcaster Pierre McGuire surfaced as a potential finalist, the mockery intensified.
Rutherford faced tough questions on Friday about his decision to fire coach Dan Bylsma, who led the Penguins to the Cup five years ago.
When the Penguins fired Shero on May 16, they kept Bylsma on as coach, allowing the new GM to make the decision. On Friday, Rutherford made it sound as if his decision to drop Bylsma was partially dictated by ownership’s desires.
However, he also voiced criticism implicit in the job that Bylsma had done. Since Pittsburgh last reached the Cup Final (2009), three teams from its division won the Eastern Conference title: Philadelphia, New Jersey and the New York Rangers.
"The coach is going to have to adjust to the style of players we have," Rutherford said, "because with the talent level of the Penguins, the Penguins can play whatever way they want. But certainly with the teams we ultimately have to compete with, we’re going to have to have a coach who can make the proper adjustments during a game or during a certain period of time during the regular season or during a playoff series.
"Obviously, the Penguins can score and they can go and they can score in bunches; but based on looking at the Penguins from a distance, because that’s where I was, I don’t think they could make the proper adjustments against certain teams. And so that’s going to be a key factor when I’m looking at a head coach."
Rutherford’s most recent hire, Kirk Muller, was heralded but unable to get the Hurricanes in the playoffs and break a five-year postseason drought.
One of Francis’ first moves as general manager was to fire Muller. Asked why the Hurricanes have not qualified for the postseason in so long, Rutherford pointed to injuries with the goalies.
"I have reasons and I know what they were," he said. "Certainly our goaltending issue with injuries over the last couple of years have been a key. For the most part, we played right down to the stretch, right down to the last game in some seasons, as far as not making it. We’ve had competitive teams there."
His criticisms of the Penguins’ roster were insightful. As currently constituted, he did not think it was strong enough to win the Cup, noting too many players at the bottom of the roster had double-digit plus/minus ratings. Ideally, those reserves should bring energy to the ice.
Craig Adams, 37, (minus-16) and Taylor Pyatt (minus-15) were the only players on the Penguins who finished in the double-digit minuses. But blueliners, like Rob Scuderi and Kris Letang, also were minus-8.
That is telling on a team which finished with a plus-42 goal differential.
Rutherford does not think he has to make sweeping changes with Pittsburgh. So, it will be interesting to see how events unfold. As an aside, he said Karmanos will meet with the league next week to find out what needs to be done about Rutherford’s minority ownership stake in the ‘Canes.
Clearly, Rutherford’s mandate is to go for it. He doesn’t plan staying around long. He mentioned how, in various roles, he had spent nearly 31 years with the Hurricanes/Whalers organization.
"For anybody that’s wondering about whether I’m staying 31 years in Pittsburgh … probably not."