This Saturday, former Hurricanes general manager Jim Rutherford entered the PNC Arena as a member of an opposing organization for the first time in almost two decades. The Pittsburgh Penguins were set to face off against the Carolina Hurricanes, the second game in a home-and-home series between the two teams. The Canes had defeated the Penguins quite easily on Friday night, a 4-2 victory that saw Carolina control play from the opening faceoff. Saturday night was a different story. Pittsburgh answered an early goal against with two of their own and spent the majority of the game toying with Carolina before sealing the 3-2 win with less than five minutes left in the game.
For Jim Rutherford, the two games should have been eye-opening. One could not have chosen two better examples of what the Hurricanes were under the many, many years he spent as Carolina’s GM.
Beloved and Be Loathed
After the first period of Saturday’s game, the PNC staff put a short tribute video to Rutherford on the arena’s Jumbotron. It was met with some applause and cheers, but the number of boos seemed to drown those out. The reaction from the home crowd wasn’t entirely surprising, because both the good and the bad of the last two decades have fallen squarely at Rutherford’s feet.
On the one hand, this was the man who brought team icons like Ron Francis, Rod Brind’Amour, Eric Staal and Cam Ward to the organization. He also built and managed the only Cup-winning team the organization has to date. Just about every good memory that Hurricanes fans have about the team has been the result of some shrewd moves by Jim Rutherford.
Unfortunately, the same could be said about every bad memory as well. While Rutherford did bring the organization a Stanley Cup, and multiple Eastern Conference Final appearances besides that, the team also missed the playoffs 14 out of 19 years with Rutherford at the helm. There were some close calls in some of those years, and Rutherford wasn’t completely to blame (Peter Karmanos often held some tight purse strings), but that’s still a success percentage that deserves some criticism.
Getting an Outsider’s Perspective
Friday and Saturday’s game should have given Rutherford the chance to really judge his general managing abilities. After all, the team Carolina iced in those two games was still largely composed of moves he’s made, as new general manager Ron Francis did not have the most active offseason. The two games the Canes played served as a microcosm of the almost twenty years Rutherford spent in the organization.
Friday represented all the teams that surprised the general masses over the years. The 02, 06, and 09 teams showed that, much like in Friday’s game, a well-coached team can often overcome a severe talent discrepancy and defeat even the best teams in the league. Unfortunately for the organization and its fans, the number of well-coached teams Carolina has had over the years can be counted on one hand.
Saturday represented the teams that composed the majority of Rutherford’s career in Carolina. A team that stumbled out of the gate early, due in large part to defensive issues like this one:
Yeah, that’s defenseman Robert Bortuzzo going 1-on-4 and walking in untouched. It’s hard to tell exactly what Carolina’s defense was thinking there, and that’s a tune that played over and over again during Rutherford’s reign as GM. Saturday’s game also saw the struggling powerplay and late game/season push that happened too late to accomplish anything, both hallmarks of Rutherford-built teams.
Changing of the Guard
For two games, at least, Canes fans were allowed to dwell on the past. To evaluate how their former general manager performed during his time with the organization. With the home-and-home series done and over with, the focus again turns to the future.
Though Francis will likely have to deal with the same tight purse strings that Rutherford often had to contend with, his approach of building toward the future rather than the now should work out better for the organization as a whole. Unfortunately, that means dealing with years like this one, where the growing pains of developing young talent leads to a lot of losses and a dwindling attendance.
If Carolina can make it past these next few rough years, if they can draft well, and if the development of their prospects, especially the likes of Hayden Fleury and Alex Nedeljkovic, goes unhindered, the future looks bright for the Carolina Hurricanes organization.