Ever since he replaced Ray Shero as general manager of the Pittsburgh Penguins on June 6, 2014, Jim Rutherford seems to have known that he had to be aggressive in order to return the Penguins to the status of Stanley Cup contender. Patience, although it is a virtue, was not a sound strategy for a team whose top two stars, Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin, had each been drafted more than a decade before.
That is because, although both players were seemingly in the midst of their prime when Rutherford took the job, NHL history is not on the side of players at their age leading their team to the Stanley Cup. After all, Wayne Gretzky was just 27 and Mario Lemieux was just 26 the last time each hoisted the Stanley Cup. That is why Rutherford has been among the most active general managers in the league in an effort to put the best team possible on the ice now even if it means mortgaging the future.
Jim Rutherford Focuses on the Present
In less than five seasons on the job, Rutherford has completed no less than 35 trades and unloaded a total of 21 draft picks including four first-round, three second-round and four third-round picks while acquiring only three second-round and two third-round picks in return. Clearly, he knows that time is of the essence and is content to let tomorrow, or his successor, worry about tomorrow.
That was why he was willing to send a top goaltending prospect in Filip Gustavsson along with a first-round pick to Ottawa as part of the deal to bring the top center on the market, Derick Brassard, to Pittsburgh at last season’s trade deadline.
That was also why he was willing, when it became apparent that Brassard was not the third-line center that the Penguins had hoped that he would be, to send him, along with Riley Sheahan and three draft picks, to the Florida Panthers to acquire Nick Bjugstad and Jared McCann this season.
In doing so, Rutherford has not only fired the first shot in what may be a veritable shooting gallery at the NHL trade deadline, he also has taken another step in changing the Penguins’ team identity; an identity he invested a lot of assets in creating but one that clearly needed an overhaul.
With his acquisitions of Phil Kessel, Carl Hagelin, Justin Schultz and Trevor Daley, Rutherford made the Penguins one of the fastest teams in the league and that speed was a big part of their back-to-back Stanley Cups in 2016 and 2017.
The Penguins’ Speed Advantage Vanishes
Unfortunately for the Penguins, the NHL is a copycat league and the speed gap that they had enjoyed soon started to shrink as teams followed their blueprint and it finally caught up with Rutherford’s team last season in a second-round loss to their archrivals and the eventual Stanley Cup champions, the Washington Capitals.
Having failed to replace the departed Nick Bonino and the stability he brought to the third line, and with Crosby and Malkin now both on the wrong side of 30, the Penguins needed to find a new identity. Starting last offseason, Rutherford set about creating one.
After clearing salary cap space by dealing undersized defenseman Matt Hunwick and forward Conor Sheary to the Buffalo Sabres for a conditional fourth-round draft pick, Rutherford then filled that space by re-signing the 6-foot-3, 214-pound Riley Sheehan to bolster the fourth line and adding the 6-foot-1, 227-pound Jack Johnson to add a physical presence on the blueline.
Then, Carl Hagelin was shipped to the Los Angeles Kings for Tanner Pearson, and Daniel Sprong was traded to the Anaheim Ducks for Marcus Pettersson as speed gave way to size.
With his long-coveted target, 6-foot-6, 220-pound Nick Bjugstad, now solidifying the third line, Rutherford has given the Penguins a counterpunch when teams try to squeeze the neutral zone and dare them to play dump-and-chase hockey. The end result is a team that is much more balanced and is as well-equipped to win a game 1-0 as it is 6-5.
While Penguins’ head coach Mike Sullivan recently admonished his team “to buy in” to the system and not rely on talent alone to win games, perhaps Jim Rutherford’s willingness to adjust his roster and his aggressiveness in pursuing the players needed to do so will make the Penguins’ new rough-and-tumble identity an easier sell to the team he has put together for another run at the Stanley Cup.