Canucks President of Hockey Ops Jim Rutherford wasn’t in attendance for last night’s game in Pittsburgh, and that was probably for the best.
The Canucks’ 5-4 loss to the Penguins was chaotic and ugly, as Vancouver blew an early 3-0 lead before the end of the first period and were never able to recover after allowing five unanswered goals.
In a lot of ways, the Penguins represent the vision in the mirror the Canucks could be with the right decisions. But to ever get to that point, there’s a lot of mirror shards that need re-gluing.
In a recent interview with Pittsburgh reporter Seth Rorabaugh, Rutherford admitted that his role with the Canucks has already been much more difficult than he anticipated:
“I knew it was going to be a challenge,” Rutherford said. “We had some work to do to improve the team. It’s probably been a little bigger challenge than I expected in trying to unravel the cap situation here. The sooner we can do that, the sooner we can move forward and improve the team.”
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Compare that to his time in Pittsburgh, where the job was all about retooling a team clearly on the cusp.
Under Rutherford’s watchful eye, the Penguins spent years building a team centred around speed and strength in numbers. The core pieces like Crosby, Malkin, Letang and Fleury were already there. Rutherford’s biggest moves were to reassess and rebuild the supporting cast around them, a feat he accomplished.
His biggest contribution was through the creation of the HBK Line — Carl Hagelin, Nick Bonino, and Phil Kessel — all of which came to the Penguins via the trade market. During the 2016 playoffs, the de facto second line combined for 56 points and was indispensable at both ends of the ice.
While that level of offensive success wasn’t replicable in 2017, a flood of young talent made it a non-issue. Jake Guentzel made his NHL debut and became an immediate star, finishing with 33 points in 43 games, plus another 21 in the playoffs.
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Beyond Guentzel, names like Carter Rowney, Scott Wilson and Bryan Rust all found their way from the Penguins’ farm team in Wilkes-Barre Scranton to the big leagues and played key roles in both of Pittsburgh’s Stanley Cups. Conor Sheary went from playing half an NHL season in 2016 to playing on Crosby and Guentzel’s wing for the majority of 2017. Sheary’s 53 points that year were enough for fourth in team scoring.
Rutherford also took chances on players whose best days seemed behind them and had been cast off by other teams. Defenceman Justin Schultz found great success as the Penguins’ power play quarterback after flaming out in Edmonton. Matt Cullen was a key contributor at 39 and 40 years of age respectively, and Ron Hainsey and Trevor Daley each played huge minutes on the blue line throughout.
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His influence was also crucial behind the bench.
After a season and a half with Mike Johnston behind the Pittsburgh bench, Rutherford felt the fit wasn’t right and made a coaching change, promoting Mike Sullivan to the role. The former Canucks assistant coach is now in his eighth season behind the Penguins’ bench, boasting a record of 317-169-60 and two Stanley Cup rings.
After those back-to-back championships, Rutherford and his front office got a little too tinker-happy, and began vastly changing the makeup of a roster that wasn’t broken. By the time the pandemic rolled around, Rutherford likely saw the writing on the wall.
In the same TribLive interview, Rutherford said he’d wanted his time as Penguins’ GM to end in a better way:
“Oh, I wish I had ended different,” said Rutherford, who contracted and recovered from COVID-19 last March. “But I had been quarantined with my family for 11 months. What we went through there, it affects you mentally. I wasn’t in a position at that time to go forward and do my job properly. I wasn’t in the right mental state of mind.”
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“This is not anybody’s fault. This is just something that we have all had to deal with. That’s not the way I would have wanted to leave. I probably, probably should have ended my career in Pittsburgh after the success that we had there. But it didn’t play out that way.”
Rutherford also reflected on the stress he deals with as the president of the Canucks when he was asked about retiring.
“I thought I was going to retire 10 years ago, and I didn’t. I would think I would probably retire in the next 10 years,” Rutherford said with a chuckle. “At this point in my life, the stress is harder to handle. But I’m not doing the day-to-day general manager stuff. So that should relieve some of the stress. But we have our challenges here. And I feel a big responsibility to try to make the Canucks better. I still deal with stress. If at some point, that stress gets too hard to handle, that will probably be where I’ll be retired somewhere.”
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His job fixing the Canucks is not going to be as simple and straightforward as his role with the Penguins. But the sooner he and the front office figures that out, the more clear the future could be.