Ron Hainsey, acquired by Jim Rutherford, played a major role in the Penguins' 2017 Stanley Cup victory. Image by: Joe Sargent/NHLI via Getty Images
From Ron Hainsey last season to Mark Recchi and Doug Weight during his days in Carolina, Penguins GM Jim Rutherford has made his share of mid-season moves that have paid dividends.
So here we are with five days to go before the NHL’s Christmas trade freeze and Pittsburgh Penguins GM Jim Rutherford is getting antsy. After all, he hasn’t made a deal in more than six weeks.
The Penguins are back-to-back Stanley Cup champions in large part because of Rutherford’s decisiveness in making bold trades quickly and efficiently after sizing up his roster needs. So when this particular GM publicly states that there’s a good chance he’ll be open for business, something he did with the Pittsburgh media Wednesday afternoon, it’s probably a good idea to sit up and take notice. And for some GMs, it might even be a better idea to ignore the call if they see Rutherford’s phone number on their call display.
What we don’t know at the moment is whether Rutherford plans to tinker or make a major move. In one quote, he spoke of simply “changing things up,” but in another was more bold when he spoke of changes, particularly if the Penguins keep taking one step forward and two steps back, which has been the case lately. Since mid-November, the Penguins have lost three in a row, then won four straight and followed that by losing three of their next four. In another quote, Rutherford said, “We’re good enough to be better than we’re doing. Hopefully that’s the way it goes here in the next little while. If it doesn’t, I don’t think it’s unreasonable to think that a major trade would come out of this.”
Either way, this should be music to the ears of every Penguins fan. Why? Because it means Rutherford is not content with two straight Stanley Cups and, against very difficult odds, wants to add another one. And he’s proven to be very adept at making roster-enhancing deals in mid-season. Like every GM in the NHL, Rutherford has plenty of skeletons in his closet when it comes to his trades. But nine of the players over the past two years who helped the Penguins win those Stanley Cups were either traded for or signed by Rutherford.
Making trades and having them end up with a Stanley Cup parade are nothing new to Rutherford. When he was GM of the Carolina Hurricanes in 2005-06, he acquired Craig Adams, Doug Weight and Mark Recchi during the season and his team went on to win the Stanley Cup. Rutherford gave up a total of six players and four draft picks for those three players and only two of those assets – Mike Zigomanis and Reto Berra – went on to having anything even approximating regular NHL careers. Weight and Recchi, meanwhile, went on to score 16 points in the playoffs for the Hurricanes that spring.
In 2016, Rutherford shored up his defense with mid-season trades for Justin Schultz and Trevor Daley that cost him a third-round pick and Rob Scuderi. Schultz has gone on to become a productive offensive defenseman who found his game under coach Mike Sullivan, whom Rutherford used to replace Mike Johnson behind the bench in what was his actual most earth-shaking mid-season move. Daley gave the Penguins a puck-moving defenseman who could either skate the puck out or get it up the ice to the Penguins forwards.
Last season Rutherford tinkered more than anything. He acquired Mark Streit for depth and went out and got Ron Hainsey, who had never played a playoff game in his career. It turned out to be a great move, giving the Penguins blueline depth they would desperately need as their blueliners dropped like flies during the post-season.
So now it appears that Rutherford is looking for some scoring depth, particularly at center behind Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin. That has been a sore spot for the Penguins this season and Rutherford and the Penguins know more than any other team that depth at forward is key to putting together a Stanley Cup run. There are GMs out there who can sense the pulse of their team and aren’t afraid to make bold moves in order to address their shortcomings. Sometimes they work, sometimes they don’t and sometimes they can even turn out disastrously.
But that does not seem to deter Rutherford. He thought it would take the Penguins a half a season to find their bearings and we’re rapidly approaching that point. If he doesn’t like what he sees, he’ll do what he has to do to try to make it better. And if that means parting ways with a player who has helped him get his name engraved for the second and third time on the Stanley Cup, that’s what he’ll do. It bears watching to see what Rutherford will do and it would be wise to not count out the possibility that it would be a real hockey trade with potential for a significant impact.
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