Pittsburgh Penguins general manager Jim Rutherford faced a lot of criticism in his first year on the job. Many commenters (including this columnist) felt that Rutherford did not adequately manage his assets or the salary cap in order to put his team in the best possible position come playoff time.
It was an easy criticism to make. The Penguins had so little salary cap space that they were forced to play with five defensemen for a long stretch at the end of the season, while minimal contributors such as Rob Scuderi ($3.475 million) and Nick Spaling ($2.2 million) held down large salaries.
The team’s depth, especially at forward, which had been one of Rutherford’s primary focuses of his first offseason, was still abysmal, with Zach Sill (1 goal in 42 games), Craig Adams (1 goal in 70 games), Marcel Goc (2 goals in 43 games) and Maxim Lapierre (0 goals in 35 games) rotating through a completely ineffective fourth line.
The team’s hydra of a front office never seemed to get on the same page and Rutherford took the issue of media criticism in his own hands by publicly berating Tribune-Review columnist Rob Rossi.
That moment, along with the following week’s exit from the first round of the Stanley Cup playoffs, represented a low-water mark for a franchise that seemed at the outset of the 2010’s to have nearly limitless potential.
This offseason, however, it seems that Rutherford has taken the lessons of his first year in office and applied them in full force.
In 2014, Rutherford sought out Nashville Predators winger Patric Hornqvist as a trade target. His physical net-front presence was something that the Penguins lacked amongst their skilled forwards and he was still a good enough skater to keep up with star centers Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin.
Rutherford made the deal at the draft, flipping a former forty-goal scorer in James Neal for Hornqvist and Spaling. While Hornqvist is an effective player, the Penguins could have and should have gotten more for Neal, especially when taking Spaling’s hefty salary into consideration.
Fast forward to 2015, and Rutherford again had his sights on another team’s top winger, this time Phil Kessel of the Toronto Maple Leafs. Instead of bidding against himself, Rutherford bided his time, letting the draft pass before finally making a terrific deal on the first of July.
The only roster player the Penguins gave up in the deal was Spaling and Rutherford got Brendan Shanahan to absorb over $1 million of Kessel’s salary, giving the Penguins much-needed salary cap flexibility as part of the deal.
At the trade deadline in 2014, the Penguins decided that they needed to improve the puck possession of the bottom six, acquiring winger Daniel Winnik for a much-needed draft pick.
This offseason, the Penguins have sought out players with strong possession numbers in free agency, brining in Eric Fehr and Matt Cullen on minimal contracts while holding onto to the pieces they will need to rebuild the prospect pool. In fact, the Penguins have so many talented forwards under contract, that they may able trade some away for defensive help in season.
In the front office, 2014 was a year of transition. The crowded management group was a mix of Ray Shero-era holdovers and Rutherford hires, including associate general manager Jason Botterill, assistant general managers Tom Fitzgerald and Bill Guerin, and vice president of hockey operations Jason Karmanos. Clearly, they had a hard time adjusting to the number of cooks in the kitchen.
Now, Fitzgerald has left to re-join Shero in New Jersey, and the staff that remains has moved forward with a singular focus. The hiring of Carnegie Mellon statistician Sam Ventura has already had a profound effect, with Rutherford specifically mentioning how advanced stats and analytics influenced their decision to acquire forwards Fehr and Nick Bonino.
This offseason, Rutherford has done a better job in managing the team’s assets and the salary cap, has found a way to work productively with his large staff and has sought out every opportunity to make the Pens into a true contender this offseason.
In short, he’s done an excellent job. It’s been quite the turnaround.
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