Why Jim Rutherford is a much better fit as Canucks POHO than he would be as GM
2 years ago
The changes just keep coming for the Vancouver Canucks, and after eight years of relative stagnancy, it’s all a little overwhelming.
Before anyone could get used to the five-headed managerial team headed by interim GM Stan Smyl in the wake of Jim Benning’s dismissal, it was disbanded and replaced by the team’s newest hire, Jim Rutherford.
Rutherford comes in as the President of Hockey Operations and the interim GM, a position he’s eminently more qualified to hold than Smyl. Rutherford is, after all, a three-time Stanley Cup-winning General Manager, having captured hockey’s ultimate honour once with the Carolina Hurricanes and twice with the Pittsburgh Penguins.
But even with that in mind, it’s probably for the best that Rutherford’s GM name-tag still says “interim,” and that the search for another GM to join Rutherford in the front office remains ongoing.
Rutherford can and should be an excellent fit in the POHO position, but his days as a full-time manager are probably behind him.
To be sure, there are a number of managerial strengths that Rutherford brings to the table, and his Cup-winning experience is obviously chief among them. What’s even more impressive are the vastly different circumstances under which Rutherford has built championship teams.
Rutherford became the President, General Manager, and part-owner of the Hartford Whalers in 1994, and then followed the franchise to Carolina three seasons later.
It took him almost a decade, but Rutherford built the Hurricanes into a championship roster through clever acquisitions and high-value signings. Eric Staal, Erik Cole, and Cam Ward were drafted, but other key names like Justin Williams, Rod Brind’Amour, and Ray Whitney came to the franchise in the years leading up to the Cup.
Several more years of inconsistent success followed, until Rutherford stepped down in 2014. Within months, he’d signed on with the Pittsburgh Penguins, where he inherited a core that already included Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin, Kris Letang, Marc-Andre Fleury, Chris Kunitz, and more.
In Pittsburgh, Rutherford’s role was that of a tweaker, and it only took him two seasons to tweak the Penguins into two-time champions, with them winning the Cup in both 2016 and 2017.
Rutherford built a fine core of his own in Carolina, but it’s the Pittsburgh experience that should really excite Canucks fans. There, he proved his ability to supplement and support an existing core of players, enough so that they could overcome their various shortcomings and reach hockey’s highest pinnacle.
That’s more-or-less what folks are hoping will happen in Vancouver over the next few seasons, though the Canucks are still a long ways off from where the Penguins were in 2014.
There are a couple of other items on Rutherford’s managerial résumé that the Vancouver fanbase should be optimistic about. The first is his consistent ability to get his star players under reasonable contract extensions. Williams, Brind’Amour, Cole, Staal, and more were all signed to below-market deals in Carolina under Rutherford, allowing the small-market franchise to thrive. Rutherford skated into pre-established long-term contracts for the likes of Crosby, Malkin, and Letang in Pittsburgh, but he did get names like Fleury, Brian Dumoulin, Bryan Rust, and Jake Guentzel all signed to better-than-expected extensions.
That bodes well for a Canucks organization that will have to extend Brock Boeser, JT Miller, Bo Horvat, and Elias Pettersson within the span of three offseasons.
Also encouraging is Rutherford’s ability to build a Cup-calibre blueline. He did it from scratch in Carolina, putting together a D-corps of cost-effective and unspectacular defenders like Frantisek Kaberle and Bret Hedican.
He also did it before leaving Carolina. His final two drafts with the Hurricanes saw Jaccob Slavin drafted in the fourth round of 2012 and Brett Pesce taken in the third round of 2013. Today, they’re two of the best defenders in the NHL.
Again, his situation was different in Pittsburgh, where he inherited a quality blueline with plenty of pre-established pieces. Still, Rutherford supplemented what he already had with cost-effective acquisitions like Trevor Daley, Ian Cole, Justin Schultz, and Ben Lovejoy, and then won two Cups with them.
But there are also some major drawbacks when it comes to Rutherford’s entire working history as an NHL general manager.
First and foremost is his inherent position within the league’s “Old Boys Club,” and we’re not just saying that because the man is 72 years old. Rutherford has been around the block a time or two, and just around in general for a long, long while. That does come with some advantages, but it also presents challenges, especially when Rutherford has proven somewhat reluctant to adapt to new ways of thinking.
He’s got a particular penchant for giving up way too much in order to acquire untalented players with supposed “high character,” a flaw that Vancouver fans do not want to see carried over from the Benning Era.
It was Rutherford, after all, who took Erik Gudbranson off of Benning’s hands, flipping Tanner Pearson back in return for him.
Rutherford also famously dealt Oskar Sundqvist and a first round pick for enforcer Ryan Reaves, only to give Reaves up for significantly less a few months later.
In fact, Rutherford has a general history of getting ripped off in trades. That could be a consequence of being part of the Old Boys Club, in that Rutherford is friends with just about everyone in the sport — and sometimes a little too friendly.
Again, that’s one reason to be glad that someone else will eventually have the final word on trade calls in Vancouver moving forward.
We’d be remiss if we didn’t mention here that, in keeping with the Old Boys Club mentality, Rutherford has an unfortunate and troubling — though thus far indirect — connection to the coverup of coach John Donatelli’s sexual assault of Erin Skalde.
But by far Rutherford’s greatest weakness as a general manager came in his drafting, development, and retention of young talent. While he did manage to build a Cup-winning core in Carolina, he did so largely in spite of his success at the draft. In Pittsburgh, Rutherford spent his entire tenure in “all-in” mode, leaving the Penguins with an incredibly bare cupboard. The list of prospects he dealt away before their time, or before they could even be selected in the Entry Draft, includes Jack Johnson, Brian Dumoulin, Kasperi Kapanen, Calen Addison, and the pick that turned into Mathew Barzal. To be fair, he’s occasionally turned that trend around in the opposite direction, like he did when he stole both Justin Schultz and John Marino from Edmonton in relatively quick succession.
Two franchise histories, two separate but related issues.
In Carolina, Rutherford flubbed on countless first round draft picks, selecting players like Jeff Heerema, Igor Knyazev, Philippe Paradis, and Ryan Murphy.
In Pittsburgh, he often dealt those same high picks before he ever got to make them, and for increasingly sketchy returns like Reaves, Jason Zucker, or a temporarily-broken-down David Perron.
Vancouver fans have experienced a decided dearth of player development over the past eight years. They’d really, really prefer for that to change, but that should hopefully be up to someone other than Rutherford.
Ideally, as we said, Rutherford’s role as POHO will entail other duties, and that’s where some of his other managerial strengths can really come to the forefront.
First up, strangely enough, is that aforementioned membership in the Old Boys Club. For all its drawbacks, being a part of the club also means having a deep web of contacts throughout every level of the sport.
Rutherford has spent the last 30 years building up his hockey rolodex, and now the Canucks have inherited that rolodex. Having people all over the sport who you can poll for information, gauge opinions against, and potentially even recruit, is an obvious advantage that Rutherford has over a more inexperienced front office-type.
There’s also a strong narrative of mentorship in his story, and that’s going to be incredibly important to the franchise’s long-term health. Mentorship has become a bit of a dirty word in Vancouver due to it being cited as the reason behind acquisitions like Jay Beagle and Loui Eriksson, but off-ice mentors don’t actually have to play hockey, so the same issues shouldn’t arise.
The reality is that the Canucks have a number of off-ice personnel, like Henrik and Daniel Sedin, Chris Higgins, and Ryan Johnson, who are all big on initiative and short on experience. Rutherford can share all of his managerial lessons, secrets, and strategies over the next three years, and those who learn under him will undoubtedly be better off for it.
And folks will listen to what Rutherford has to say because, again, he’s won three Stanley Cups.
Really, that’s what it all comes down to. Forget roster construction — that’s going to be someone else’s job, and while Rutherford will have some input there, too, he won’t be making the calls. But there’s a lot more to building a winning organization than just roster construction. It takes contributions from countless off-ice individuals, too; from the front office on down through the coaching staff, athletic trainers, medical trainers, scouts, and so many more.
Rutherford built a winning organization from the ground up in Carolina.
Rutherford built a winning organization from the top down in Pittsburgh.
Clearly, he has significant insight into “what it takes” to win the Stanley Cup, and in his ongoing role as POHO, that’s going to primarily involve recruiting, developing, and supporting franchise employees at every single level of the organization.
For that job, it’s tough to list too many candidates that are better suited than Rutherford.
The selection of the Canucks’ next GM is still crucial, and there won’t be any talk of championships for a good long while if the right choice is not made there.
But, so far? So good.
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