Agony to Ecstasy: Jim Rutherford Sniffs a Cup

Jim Rutherford must be grinning from ear to ear right about now. Having left the agony that is the current edition of the Carolina Hurricanes to travel north to Pittsburgh Penguins, he is sitting fat and happy. Just imagine the new lease on life that Ole JR must be feeling right about now. From a hopeless situation to a scenario where he may very well find himself enjoying another Stanley Cup in June.

Tarheel State Rising

North Carolina is known as the Tarheel State. In the state capital of Raleigh, the Carolina Hurricanes reside. For nearly twenty years, Jim Rutherford called this southern paradise home. In 1994, he became part-owner and general manager of the Hartford Whalers, who became the Carolina Hurricanes in 1997.

Hockey in Carolina was not a no-brainer. Jim Rutherford worked very hard at building the team and a following. The PNC Arena, home to the Hurricanes and the NC State Wolfpack basketball team, is a great venue and has added much in the way of non-sporting events through the years for folks to enjoy. Rutherford and Gale Force Holdings – the parent company of the ‘Canes – have made real positive contributions to Raleigh and the surrounding area.

The Hurricanes had quite the first ten years in Raleigh. Under the general management of Jim Rutherford, they made the playoffs three times. They went to the Stanley Cup Finals in 2002 where they lost to the Detroit Red Wings and in 2006 where they hoisted the Cup after defeating the Edmonton Oilers.

For a newly relocated southern team, that success was quite remarkable.

The 2008-09 found the ‘Canes in the playoffs once again. They made it to the conference finals where they lost to the eventual Stanley Cup winning Pittsburgh Penguins. Since then, the Hurricanes have been on a fast trip downward, like the deep plunge from the top of a large roller coaster. Only it has not been a fun, thrilling ride for the team or the fans.

 

Nose dive

For the past five years the ‘Canes have been mediocre at best and just plain awful at worst. The team is now on its third coach

Jim Rutherford brough the great Rod Brind'Amour to the 'Canes
Jim Rutherford brought the great Rod Brind’Amour to the ‘Canes

since their 2009 playoff appearance, and has been stuck in a kind of NHL “no man’s land” for quite some time. What was a team that once seemed to be run with purpose, seemed to have turned directionless, with no leadership coming from the front office. The days of notable acquisitions like the great Rod Brind’Amour and Ron Francis have long since passed. To many fans, Jim Rutherford seemed to be hunkered down in the executive suite, with no intention of rebuilding the team into a playoff contender.

The most frustrating verbiage that became synonymous with Jim Rutherford was, “we’re acquiring assets.” This was typically uttered as a response to a seemingly endless array of questionable draft selections and re-tread trades. What exactly does “we’re acquiring assets” mean? To the astute hockey fan, it means getting talent that will be an asset to the team, a player that will help get the team to the next level. To Carolina Hurricanes fans however, all too often it seemed to mean that we are shooting in the dark hoping to get a good player.

Jim Rutherford drafted Jeff Skinner, clearly a home run
Jim Rutherford drafted Jeff Skinner, clearly a home run

Yes there are the Jeff Skinners and other young players with loads of talent. Drafting Skinner was a home run. And some will say that Jim Rutherford had an ability to get players to stay with the Hurricanes for less money than they might have been able to get elsewhere. But to the average and even diehard ‘Canes fans, the last few seasons have been gut-wrenching and made even more so by what seemed to be a lack of effort by management to move the team forward.

Get out-of-town

The torment of mediocrity that earmarked Jim Rutherford’s last few years in Raleigh ended last year. He announced that he would be stepping down as general manager, and handing over the reins to Ron Francis. The initial fan reaction was mixed – some glad to see Jim Rutherford go – some wondering if Ronnie was ready. I asked a long-time ‘Canes fan to give me his thoughts on Jim Rutherford and I received this text:

“JR should be appreciated for his work with the Canes franchise and professional hockey growth in North Carolina.”

Most everyone was hoping that the effort that Francis would put into building the team would be greater than what it seemed had been exerted over the past few seasons. Would Ron Francis be a Jim Rutherford disciple, or his own man, making his mark on

(James Guillory-USA TODAY Sports)
(James Guillory-USA TODAY Sports)

the Hurricanes much as he did as a player?

So far the best way to describe Ron Francis as a general manager is “measured.” He is not prone to knee-jerk responses and appears to be giving great consideration to any moves he makes. He brought in Bill Peters from the Detroit Red Wings organization, a coach who has shown he can win, albeit with no NHL head-coaching resume. Peters’ exposure to Mike Babcock certainly has been a positive influence, as he comes off as tough, fair, and systematic.

In my opinion, bypassing some of the other names that were out there at the time to pick Bill Peters shows that Ron Francis knows what he is looking for, and is not afraid to make a bold, contrarian move.

Penguin Jim Rutherford

Shortly after Jim Rutherford announced his change in status with the Hurricanes, the hockey world awoke to the news that the

Jim Rutherford now has Sidney Crosby(Adam Hunger-USA TODAY Sports)
Jim Rutherford now has Sidney Crosby(Adam Hunger-USA TODAY Sports)

Raleigh-Pittsburgh hockey corridor is still alive and well. JR was heading north to become the general manager of the Pittsburgh Penguins. Leaving behind Staal, Staal, Skinner, and Ward for the limitless potential of Crosby, Malkin, Hornqvist, and Fleury, Rutherford’s sniff at another Stanley Cup instantly became a lot more fragrant. He left a team in the throes of rebuilding and landed at a team that is a legitimate Cup contender. Sweet!

The ink was barely dry on the Penguins’ announcement that they had hired Jim Rutherford when the team announced that head coach Dan Bylsma had been fired. JR had probably not even had a chance to hang any pictures in his new office before he had written Bylsma’s pink slip. According to the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette on June 7, 2014, Jim Rutherford said that the decision was largely made before he arrived, and that

“I took the information over the last week with the couple of meetings I had [with top-level team officials], and we agree that making the change was the right thing to do.”

Firing the winningest coach in franchise history was the right thing to do? I guess we’ll see if it was or was not.

One thing is glaringly evident. Jim Rutherford left a fan base frustrated that his team was not making the playoffs. Dan Blysma and former Pens GM Ray Shero were fired because the franchise was disappointed in how deep they going in the playoffs. That is quite a different set of expectations, and shows the huge difference in an established hockey market like Pittsburgh, and an arguably still growing hockey market in Raleigh.

The Cup Sniff

Jim Rutherford’s Pittsburgh Penguins are currently in first place in the NHL’s Eastern Conference Metropolitan Division. With 53 points, they are in the mix with the division and conference leaders across the board. (The Carolina Hurricanes are next to last in the NHL with 28 points). Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin are having an outstanding years, as is goalie Marc-Andre Fleury. The Pens are loaded with arguably some of the best talent in the NHL. The expectation of deep playoff runs is not without basis.

Jim Rutherford acquired David Perron from the Edmonton Oilers last week. The trade signaled that JR is serious about his team making a strong run in the playoffs:

There you have it. Jim Rutherford is sniffing another Stanley Cup and has the team and apparently the willingness to go hard for the prize. The Perron trade yielded an instant return as he scored right out of the gate as a Penguin:

Having ownership backing is key, also. Another statement I received when asking for fan thoughts on Jim Rutherford, didn’t lay the blame for the team’s recent woes on him at all:

“It is becoming clear that the limiting factor on the Canes is not the GM or the coaching staff, but rather it is Karmanos’ tight salary spending.”

That may very well be spot-on. Hurricanes owner Peter Karmanos has said that he wants to sell the team but make sure he gets a fair return. Perhaps the reason Carolina did not snag someone like Johnny Boychuk early in the season is because Karmanos just won’t let go of the checkbook. Who knows? The path of least resistance for the Hurricanes seems to be hoping that the draft will yield a few more Jeff Skinner-types, and maybe even a Sidney Crosby. The path of going after star power just does not seem likely at all.

Jim Rutherford has had a storied career. He built a winning team in Carolina for which fans are grateful. His later years there were not remarkable. He finds himself now close to the end of his own career, having said he sees himself in Pittsburgh as the GM for only two or three years. His last hurrah may be another Stanley Cup. At this point, this year’s edition of the Pittsburgh Penguins have as much claim to expecting success as any of the other top teams in the league. Ole JR may get to ride off into the hockey sunset with another sniff of Lord Stanley’s Cup. And that’s alright with me.