It only makes sense that Jim Rutherford went out like this.
Since the Hall of Fame executive took the Pittsburgh Penguins job almost seven years ago, entering into the presumed final chapter of his career and a run which abruptly ended Wednesday with the surprise news that he’s stepping down due to personal reasons, Rutherford has operated with a blinded focus on the here and now, seeming to make decisions with little consideration for the future.
Like there was no tomorrow.
His most powerful weapon being that he was managing for his last job, not his next job, Rutherford was in many ways the perfect choice for the Penguins when he was brought on before the 2014-15 season. Taking the reins before the best one-two option at centre ice in the NHL at time time — Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin — began their 10th season as teammates, Rutherford was the front-office executive chosen for a massive undertaking: extracting meaningful and lasting success from the second generational duo in franchise history.
This meant that he could dial it up on a whim, funnelling all resources into the active roster and aggressively chasing upgrades, all while exercising a quick trigger when addressing issues on the ice and inside hockey operations.
Rutherford would have led the NHL in subordinates per sixty if it were a kept stat, cycling through talent at both the player and coach level at rapid speeds in search of winning combinations.
Those aggressive tactics worked brilliantly in the beginning.
Rutherford turned over a beleaguered roster, acquiring the likes of Phil Kessel, Patric Hornqvist, Nick Bonino, Carl Hagelin, Justin Schultz, Ian Cole, Trevor Daley and Ben Lovejoy, among others, in a series of deals that changed the surroundings inside the Crosby-Malkin ecosystem.
But maybe his biggest move in those first few seasons was introducing the third Penguins coach over a stretch of barely 16 months, replacing his initial hire, Mike Johnston, with Wilkes-Barre Scranton boss Mike Sullivan.
It immediately caught fire with Sullivan at the controls of Rutherford’s revamped roster, and the Penguins went on to win back-to-back Stanley Cups for the second time in their history in 2016 and 2017.
This was mission accomplished for Rutherford, who assembled the rosters that achieved mini dynasty status while securing the legacies of Crosby and Malkin.
But Rutherford continued to operate on a different frequency in the years that followed, tweaking his roster on a level like no other executive. He completed more than 30 trades since the Penguins clinched their consecutive Stanley Cup victories, many of which were completed just in the last few seasons alone.
This includes negotiating the terms that saw Marc-Andre Fleury selected by the Vegas Golden Knights in the expansion draft, and then dealing the preferred netminder, Matt Murray, in his last transaction in charge.
This includes sacrificing a first-round draft pick for Ryan Reaves and then trading the enforcer eight months later.
This includes dealing away or re-acquiring a laundry list of players he included in trades in the years and sometimes months before, including Kessel, Hornqvist, Cole, Hagelin, Derrick Brassard, Tanner Pearson, Erik Gudbranson, Alex Galchenyuk, Conor Sheary, Nick Bjugstad, Dominik Kahun, Riley Sheahan, and Jamie Oleksiak.
This also includes circling back to perhaps the most successful trade of his tenure, the Kessel move, in order to re-acquire Kasperi Kapanen, the original asset spent.
Unfortunately, an increased cadence hasn’t correlated to more success for Rutherford. Pittsburgh has one series victory in the last three years and technically missed the postseason in the COVID-shortened 2019-20 season with a play-in loss to the Montreal Canadiens.
He’s also made some very questionable roster decisions of late, spending big on the likes of Jack Johnson, and bringing in flawed players like Mike Matheson and Cody Ceci.
Those recent misses and the lack of success that has dogged the franchise over the last few years will allow many to get jokes off, but Rutherford deserves nothing but praise for his tenure with the organization.
He made things happen in a league full of gun-shy general managers leaning too heavily on the fact that it is difficult to complete trades.
He set the table for the Crosby-Malkin era to meet its potential.
He lifted the Stanley Cup three times himself.
It’s possible that the Penguins were headed down the wrong path, and needed this change today. Perhaps the answer to whose best suited to be in charge lies with the acting replacement, Patrik Allvin.
But whoever it is that is given the same control that Rutherford had will be in tough to match his vast accomplishments.
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