New Penguins’ GM Jim Rutherford must build a better blueline than he did in Carolina

Adam Proteau
Jim Rutherford
Jim Rutherford

In choosing former Hurricanes architect Jim Rutherford to replace Ray Shero, the Pittsburgh Penguins have opted for experience over a more youthful, longer-term solution. The 65-year-old Rutherford is a well-respected NHL executive, but he’ll face intense scrutiny from anyone who looks at the Pens’ major issues on the blueline, compares them with the at-best-mediocre defense corps Rutherford built when he was running the Canes for the past two decades, and comes away skeptical he’ll be able to adequately address them.

Any GM who has won a Stanley Cup as Rutherford did in Carolina in 2006 accumulates a cachet of the benefit of the doubt. But the fact is, after the Hurricanes won a championship, they’ve made the playoffs only once. And their defense has been a mess; if Joni Pitkanen is your best blueliner in the past eight years and you’ve brought back Joe Corvo for a second tour of duty, you’ve got a lot of room for improvement. If Rutherford is to have any success in Pittsburgh, he has to do a better job of building his back end.

Rutherford no longer will be working under the financial constraints he’s always had to deal with in Carolina. The Penguins aren’t a budget team, but they’re also facing significant salary cap challenges: D-men Brooks Orpik and Matt Niskanen and winger Jussi Jokinen are scheduled to be unrestricted free agents in a month; restricted free agent Brandon Sutter needs a new contract; and the franchise has only seven forwards signed for next season.

So Rutherford is going to have to be creative and aggressive from the get-go. He’ll also need to make a decision on starting goaltender Marc-Andre Fleury. Should the Pens choose to buy out the final year of Fleury’s contract, could we see Rutherford take a chance on Hurricanes goalie Cam Ward? There’s no doubt acquiring Ward would be risky – the 30-year-old has two years left on his contract at $6.3 million a season and has struggled with injuries in the past couple seasons – but GMs have been known to turn to players with whom they’re familiar and Ward qualifies as such in this case.

It’s understandable why Penguins owners Mario Lemieux and Ron Burkle went with Rutherford. Bringing in a GM with no experience – for instance, highly-regarded current assistant GM Jason Botterill – to learn on the job is an idea as fraught with peril as choosing someone who won’t be in the role 10, or even five years down the line. This is a team built to win now, and in hiring Rutherford, the Pens hit the ground running.

Rutherford will have no excuses for the results that follow in his new role. He’s got more top-end talent than he ever had in Carolina. He’s got a blank checkbook with which to attack the team’s soft spots. He’s got to produce better results than his predecessor, and he’s got to do so immediately.

If that doesn’t happen, we could be seeing another new Penguins GM hired not too far down the line.