When Jim Rutherford helmed the Pittsburgh Penguins from 2014 to 2021, they were already in a position for success. Rutherford, now President of Hockey Operations for the Vancouver Canucks, cultivated a reputation as a general manager (GM) who always knew what his team needed to succeed and had an almost unnatural ability to find it, often at a bargain. Jeff Carter, Phil Kessel, and Justin Schultz were all acquired during Rutherford’s tenure and became key pieces in the Penguins’ run to back-to-back Stanley Cups in 2016 and 2017. Now in the first year under GM Ron Hextall, much of Rutherford’s blueprint remains.
The Penguins have been remarkably successful in the first season of Hextall’s tenure, currently sitting just two points out of first place in the Metropolitan Division and fourth place in the Eastern Conference. They’ve been getting consistent production from the top down and unsung heroes have stepped to the plate and earned a spot in the conversation of the league’s best players. As a result, the Penguins are in an excellent position to have a quiet trade deadline. When the frenzy hits on March 21, the Penguins will be the oasis of calm in the rough and stormy seas of deadline day.
Penguins’ Core Veterans Still Playing at a High Level
It would be hard to justify the Penguins’ decision to make a deadline day move, considering how much production they’ve been getting out of their veterans. Sidney Crosby and Kris Letang are tied for second on the team in scoring with 47 points. Jake Guentzel, now a sixth-year forward, leads the team in points, with 25 goals and 27 assists for 52 points. For his outstanding performance, Guentzel was rewarded with a spot in the NHL All-Star Game alongside goaltender Tristan Jarry. Jarry and Guentzel helped the Metropolitan Division triumph over the Central Division in the final game.
Up until quite recently, the Penguins’ core was incomplete, as veteran forward Evgeni Malkin missed the beginning of the season while recovering from knee surgery. Malkin’s first game back after his convalescence was Jan. 13, and he quickly made his presence known. He potted two goals and added one assist in the Pens’ 4-1 victory over the Anaheim Ducks. Malkin also missed some time while in COVID-19 protocol, but has still managed to produce consistently, with six goals and 11 assists for 17 points in 16 games played.
Rutherford’s Handwriting Remains Imprinted on Penguins
Even though he’s now serving as a member of the Canucks’ front office and many of the players he brought in have since moved on. Two big pieces of the Penguins’ back-to-back Stanley Cups, Schultz and Kessel, are now members of other organizations. Still, Rutherford’s hands are still all over this Penguins team. Rutherford was hired on June 6, 2014, and his first draft with the club came later that month.
Rutherford selected forward Kasperi Kapanen with the 22nd pick, who has gone on to become one of the most exciting young players in the league. Although he ultimately dealt Kapanen to the Toronto Maple Leafs (where he blossomed, including a career-high 20 goals in his first full season) in exchange for Kessel, Kapanen has since returned and has provided a nice boost to the Penguins’ offence.
As it turns out, some of the more underrated players Rutherford signed during his tenure have made the most of their opportunities this season. Evan Rodrigues, initially traded to the Maple Leafs in exchange for Kapanen, re-signed with the Penguins before this season and has gone from toiling in relative obscurity to fifth on the team in scoring. He’s been in a bit of a slump recently, but his play has nevertheless been comparatively impressive. (From “Evan Rodrigues finally snaps scoring drought, giving the Penguins hope that it will reignite him,” Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, 20/02/2022)
For a decent amount of time, Rodrigues was up there with the Pens’ best point-getters. Re-signing him was one of Rutherford’s last moves as Penguins’ GM, and it has reverberated to this season with tremendous success.
Although Rutherford’s departure left some uncertainty in the Penguins organization, the moves he made while at the helm have served them well this season and have them in a position for continued regular season and playoff success in 2021-22 and beyond. The success of this season, which has included multiple dominant winning streaks, has meant the Penguins aren’t particularly lacking in any one area that new Hextall needs to urgently address. The deadline is still about a month away, and the Penguins shouldn’t fret about making a big splash. The team, and the GM, have Rutherford to thank for that stability.