Hurricanes Slowly Pulling Rutherford Roots

Jim Rutherford was the president and general manager of the Hartford Whalers and then the Carolina Hurricanes from 1994 to 2014. Thoughts of his tenure bring to mind a roller coaster, with an ascent to the top that garnered a Stanley Cup Finals win for the Hurricanes in 2006, and a sharp plummeting drop, quickly followed by twists and turns that eventually led to a plateau and boredom.

Though nearly five years since his departure, the Rutherford roots remain, even though they are slowly being pulled up and replaced by new seeds of hope for the future. Since his departure a little over four years ago, the team has basically floundered while Rutherford has enjoyed additional ascents to the top. Perhaps he took the best of himself with him and left behind what was becoming his legacy since 2009: a team that couldn’t quite win with a fan base that was deteriorating.

The Rutherford Itch

Rutherford retired as general manager of the Hurricanes in April 2014, ostensibly to remain on in his other role as president in an advisory capacity. Most people in the business pondered the notion of Rutherford sitting at his desk with nothing to do but shine his “President” nameplate and figured that he would not be satisfied in that tole for long.

Canes Country quoted Rutherford after he stepped down as general manager, “But I wonder if three, four, or six months from now, will that itch be there?  I’ve competed all my life, as a player and as a manager.  Will the itch still be there, or will it be easy to walk in the other direction.  I will face it when the time comes.”

Jim Rutherford
Jim Rutherford left an indelible imprint on the Carolina Hurricanes as their general manager

Apparently whatever anti-itch cream Rutherford had applied was not of the long-lasting variety, as the Bleacher Report announced him as the new general manager of the Pittsburgh Penguins only two months later. Rutherford was quoted as saying, “I’m excited by this opportunity to return to Pittsburgh and become general manager of a franchise that I’ve always admired,” Rutherford also said. “To have the chance to work with Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin and the talented group of players assembled here is something that any GM would dream of. I’m looking forward to getting to work right away – it’s going to be an important summer.”

The Rutherford Francis Root Pulled

In 2017 Luke DeCock of the News & Observer in Raleigh, NC gave a great description of Rutherford’s tenure with the Hurricanes: “Some of the names and faces changed, but throughout that stretch it was a group that made up for what it lacked in raw talent with an excess of character – exactly what the current Hurricanes have been missing the past few years. Rutherford did a remarkable job finding players who fit that mold for a long time. Then things went stale, and Rutherford retired as general manager.”

Rutherford left behind a Hurricanes team that was replete with his imprint. The new general manager/executive vice-president to follow in his footsteps was Ron Francis. Rutherford had brought him to the Hurricanes in July 1998. The two-time Stanley Cup champion had started his career with the Whalers in 1981 where he became a fan-favorite for 10 years and spent eight seasons with the Penguins where he won the two Stanley Cups.

Ron Francis
Ron Francis in 2016 as general manager of the Carolina Hurricanes (James Guillory-USA TODAY Sports)

With a reputation for sportsmanship and a determination to win, it was thought that Francis would replace Rutherford with his own style and a fresh approach. The sportsmanship and class definitely were a part of the Francis era as Hurricanes general manager, as was a determination to win. But, it was his style that did him in and his approach was not altogether fresh when compared with Rutherford’s.

Francis was probably too thoughtful, too conservative in his approach. To his defense, he was working for an owner in Peter Karmanos who was trying to sell his team and did not seem interested in making the kinds of trades that would make the Hurricanes competitive. In July 2015, Karmanos blasted Rutherford’s bringing Phil Kessel to the Pens, predicting a dismal return on that investment. Two Stanley Cup championships later it appears that Rutherford did pretty well on the Kessel deal.

Phil Kessel Penguins
Phil Kessel, Pittsburgh Penguins, January 2, 2018 (Amy Irvin / The Hockey Writers)

Compared with Rutherford, Francis had no “big-splash moves” like Phil Kessel. Whether it was paralysis of analysis on the part of Francis or the tight attitude of Karmanos, the Francis era came quickly crashing to an end when a new owner, Tom Dundon came to town seemingly willing to make the kinds of moves that would put the Hurricanes in a better position to win. Dundon ultimately decided to relieve Francis of his duties and later gave him a pink slip, in essence pulling up a big Rutherford root. The hall of fame player could not achieve the success in the front office that he did on the ice.

One Big Rutherford Root Remains

There are plenty of players that came and went during the Rutherford era. Jordan Staal was one of the marquis acquisitions that Rutherford made and he is still with the team. Hurricanes long-time goalie Cam Ward was a Rutherford root since 2006 when he led the team to win the Stanley Cup. He was just pulled up and shipped to the Chicago Blackhawks.

Jeff Skinner Hurricanes
Jeff Skinner, former forward with the Carolina Hurricanes (Amy Irvin / The Hockey Writers)

Jeff Skinner was a Rutherford draft pick in 2010. He was rooted firmly as part of the future the team placed on the “young guns” to play exciting, high-scoring hockey. Along with Ward, he too was pulled up and is now planted with the Buffalo Sabres. In return, the Hurricanes received a couple of draft picks and Calvin Pu, a prospect who has yet to play a game in the AHL or the NHL.

Of course, former captain Eric Staal, brother of Jordan, is gone. He was rooted firmly as the leader of the team under Rutherford, and Francis traded him to the New York Rangers. Staal eventually ended up with the Minnesota Wild where he is soaring, rejuvenated in his career and his game. Plucked up and gone another Rutherford root pulled up and no longer a part of the Hurricanes.

Obviously, there are others who were planted by Rutherford throughout the Hurricanes organization, and it is not the intent of this piece to list them all. However, the spotlight is now shining brightly on perhaps one of Rutherford’s biggest plantings, new coach Rod Brind’Amour.

Rod Brind'Amour
Rod Brind’Amour (THW Archives)

Brind’Amour is another Hurricanes fan favorite. He was named the organization’s head coach in May of this year. Don Waddell said this in the announcement of the team’s new coach:

Rod is the greatest leader in the history of this franchise and has earned the opportunity to take charge of our locker room.

Those are extremely strong words in the face of those who have gone before Brind’Amour. But, he is Dundon’s man to coach the team and Waddell is all-in.

Waddell was named the team’s general manager and president at the same time. Dundon did not look elsewhere for a foundation on which to build, but he sunk Rutherford’s roots down deeper with Brind’Amour.

While the Hurricanes have extracted a lot of the roots that Rutherford had planted, arguably one of the biggest is still in place. The question remains — how much of his imprint will influence the way Brind’Amour coaches? Will it be the imprint of winning the Stanley Cup or the stamp of mediocrity that Rutherford left behind and that the team has yet to emerge from into victory?