The Pittsburgh Penguins were supposed to make major changes last offseason to overhaul the franchise. As expected the Penguins fired general manager Ray Shero and later head coach Dan Bylsma, but who did they replace them with?
They hired the 65 year-old Jim Rutherford, who was the former GM of the Carolina Hurricanes, and his tenure was controversial. He then chose to hire Mike Johnston to operate as the Penguins head coach.
Johnston was a rookie head coach, but did have the background of working with their prized prospect Derrick Pouliot in the WHL. After a full season it’s safe to say that Johnston did the best job he could with the given circumstances.
Not many coaches would have been able to get their team into the playoffs without four of their top six defenders. Johnston showed a willingness to adapt and alter his game plan when it was not working, this was a big criticism of Bylsma.
But were the Pittsburgh Penguins doomed to fail before the 2014-2015 season even began?
Rutherford’s time with Carolina
In 20 seasons as the general manager, Rutherford’s performance was very controversial. He managed to get the Hurricanes to the Stanley Cup finals twice and obtained the first title for the franchise in the 2006 season.
His Carolina Hurricanes won the Cup during the first salary cap season, but to many this win has an asterisk next to it. The first season of the salary cap also included many new rules and changes to existing rules, which many teams were unable to fully figure out and the Hurricanes beat the Edmonton Oilers in the final when they were playing without their top goaltender (Dwayne Roloson) for the last six games.
Other than the 2005-2006 championship season, the Hurricanes made the playoffs just once from the 2006 season to his last season in 2013-2014. That was in 2008-2009 when the Hurricanes barely made it to the conference finals and were then swept by none other than, the Pittsburgh Penguins.
In that same time frame the Hurricanes finished 9th or worse in their conference every season. It’s clear that Rutherford simply has not excelled in the salary cap era.
Set up for failure?
So were the Penguins set up to fail before the season even began? I personally believe they were. It’s quite shocking that a great hockey mind like Mario Lemieux would hire a general manager with a poor track record like Rutherford.
A great example of his ineptitude was his signing of Alexander Semin to a 5 year/$35 million dollar contract, a deal that has looked horrid.
It’s not like the Penguins had options to be their general manager. Except they had a fantastic candidate, one who was groomed in-house by Ray Shero himself, his name is Jason Botterill.
Under Shero, Botterill was the salary cap guru and one of the well-respected assistant GMs in the NHL. However, he was passed over by Lemieux and ownership for Rutherford.
In his first season, Rutherford seems to have completely ignored Botterill’s advice and has been a large reason why the Penguins failed.
It goes all the way back to the Penguins first offseason move under Rutherford, the James Neal trade. While sending Neal to Nashville for Patric Hornqvist has been considered a win by many, the acquisition of Nick Spaling was not.
Pittsburgh was forced to pay Spaling more than he was worth and he was part of the salary cap issues that forced them to play only five defenders at the end of the season. Was it a coincidence that Botterill was against getting Spaling?
@kovalevrulz27 Botterill told Rutherford point-blank not2 get Spaling b/c it would cause cap probs. Fact.
— Mark Madden (@MarkMaddenX) April 21, 2015
When you look at the rest of the Penguins free agent signings, trades and personnel movement it all points to one thing, Botterill has been ignored. Rutherford has been known to be a very private person while running a hockey club and that doomed the Penguins before the season even started.
In my opinion, the Penguins were set up to fail with the hiring of Jim Rutherford instead of Jason Botterill and the results speak for themselves. You can blame injuries, but everyone who knows hockey realized that the current roster was not going to make a deep playoff run even in perfect health. He’s shown that he does not understand the salary cap and cannot build a team with the given constraints.
Until the Penguins no longer allow Rutherford to run the franchise, there will be no championships coming to Pittsburgh.
Michael Pityk is an analyst who has written for numerous sites since beginning his professional career. He’s acted as a credentialed member of the media for the Philadelphia Phillies, Philadelphia Flyers, Pittsburgh Pirates and the Pittsburgh Penguins. His work has been featured in Sports Illustrated, The Sports Journal, MSN, PensLabyrinth, Montreal Hockey Talk, ESPN Pittsburgh, The Hockey Writers, Todays SlapShot and The Bleacher Report. He formerly was the editor of Pens Labyrinth and an analyst for The Sports Journal. Michael presently acts as an NHL Analyst for The Hockey Writers