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Penguins, GM Rutherford show second chances can bring Stanley Cup

SAN JOSE, Calif. – Jim Rutherford was exhausted. 

He had served as the president and general manager of the Carolina Hurricanes – and their precursors, the Hartford Whalers – since 1994. That’s a lot of firings. A lot of trades. A lot of travel and long hours and, recently in Raleigh, little to show for it.

So he stepped down from those roles in April 2014. “I thought I was going to take it easy, play a lot of golf,” he said.

But while checking tee-times, Rutherford had made a silent vow: “If somebody called me, I would consider going somewhere if I felt I had a chance to win a championship.”

One day, the phone rang.

It was the Pittsburgh Penguins. They had a job for him. And they wanted to know if he still had the fire for it.  

“I wasn’t going to go many places. But with the core players they had in Pittsburgh, this was a chance to win another Cup,” said Rutherford.

“And as it turned out, I was right.”

And we were wrong.

When the Penguins hired the then-65-year-old general manager to lead their hockey operations, the move seemed untraditional at best and illogical at worst. Ray Shero was fired, and Dan Bylsma soon after, because the Penguins needed to build a new frame for their window of opportunity. The idea that Rutherford, whose teams had missed the playoffs in seven of eight seasons after winning the 2006 Stanley Cup, was anything but an old Band-Aid with the adhesive dried up was unfathomable.

He was the kindly old grandpa who kept re-signing the same players every few years, right? The guy who came in and said he was only going to be in Pittsburgh for two or three years? The Penguins needed someone that was going to reinvent the wheel, not someone who might have been there when it was actually invented, right?

But what short-sighted, ageist idiots like yours truly didn’t comprehend is what Rutherford believes in wholeheartedly: second chances.

That the first 22 years of his managerial life were, in fact, a first act.

“Second chances isn’t a bad thing, you know? Too many times people want to beat up on people that are going through a tough time, and you can see when guys get a second chance, and they fit into a situation that’s better for them,” said Rutherford.

“That’s what happened to guys here.”

***

The Stanley Cup drew Rutherford to Pittsburgh.

“It was always in the plans, and in my thoughts, since I got here. Our core guys were special players. When you can get to the point where you can add a group around them, then you have a chance to win. That’s what happened this year,” he said.

When Rutherford took the Penguins job, he knew what they needed to upgrade. “I knew there were some areas that needed to be fixed. And eventually, I had to do it,” he said.

Like team speed. Rutherford wanted to push the pace. It was just a matter of finding the right personnel.

“You can’t go to the Olympics and find speed skaters. You have to find hockey players. And we were fortunate,” he said. “We filled it with character players, and players who filled certain roles."

But also people that needed a second chance, like their general manager did. Among them:

- Phil Kessel, the star scoring winger who work ethic, attitude and fitness – hello, hot dog stand of infamy – were questioned in Toronto as the Maple Leafs entered a full rebuild. “I’m so happy for him. His years in this League haven’t been easy. Now he’s got his name on the Cup,” said Rutherford.

- Trevor Daley, the puck-moving defenseman whom the Chicago Blackhawks acquired from the Dallas Stars in the Patrick Sharp deal. He didn’t fit there, and was a huge disappointment. Rutherford moved a slow-moving Rob Scuderi for the swift-skating Daley. “Daley didn’t fit in in Chicago. We were fortunate he was available,” said Rutherford.

- Justin Schultz, the highly-touted college free agent who became a pariah in the Edmonton Oilers’ tire fire. His confidence was shot, but Rutherford saw something in him that warranted trading a third-round pick. He was one of the best possession players in the Stanley Cup playoffs for the Penguins. “He’s come a long way from his Edmonton days,” said the GM.

- Carl Hagelin, the blazing fast winger who disappointed mightily – four goals in 43 games – after the Anaheim Ducks acquired him from New York and signed him to a four-year deal. Rutherford flipped forward David Perron for him. “Hagelin didn’t fit in in Anaheim. We were hoping we got the guy who played for the Rangers, and we did,” said the GM of Hagelin, one member of the fabled HBK Line with Kessel.

- Mike Sullivan, the former Boston Bruin coach who waited nine years for another shot at an NHL bench boss gig. Rutherford called him up from the American Hockey League to replace Mike Johnston last December. “When he came here, the players really took to him. He approaches the game a little differently than some guys, but he was a key player. I’m very happy for him,” said Rutherford of the new entrant to the “coaches with a ring” club.

In those last two examples, Rutherford did something that’s also characterized his time with the Penguins: He corrected his own mistakes.

Rutherford took heat in May 2015 for proclaiming that he wouldn’t have made the Simon Despres for Ben Lovejoy trade if given a second crack at it. It’s rare an acting general manager would call out his own misstep. But part of his makeup is his candor; to admit, and act on, errors in judgment.

Would he have traded a first-round pick again for Perron? Probably not. But Perron ended up becoming Hagelin.

Would he have hired Johnston, a coach with no NHL experience, to change the systems and the culture of an NHL team? Probably not. But Johnston laid down some defensive foundation before Mike Sullivan arrived to build a champion.

“When something doesn’t go right, the sooner you admit it and make a change, the better off you’re going to be,” he said. “I had to make some changes this year.”

***

Matt Cullen hugged his children on the ice after Game 6, his face still soaked with sweat, mixed with a few happy tears.

This is the last place he thought he’d be after last season, because last season could have been his last season.

He had come off a two-year deal with the Nashville Predators, having played 1,212 games in the National Hockey League. He was a 38-year-old free agent, garnering little interest and facing the end of his professional hockey life. He and his wife would pray together, looking for guidance, looking for an answer to the question of what comes next.

One day, a familiar voice was on the other end of his phone.

Jim Rutherford, the general manager of Cullen’s 2006 Stanley Cup championship team with the Carolina Hurricanes. He asked Cullen what was basically asked of him when the Pittsburgh Penguins needed a veteran as their general manager:

“You still got the fire?”

Rutherford defined Cullen’s role for him. He would be a fourth-line center primarily, but move around the lineup. He would be a vocal, veteran voice in the room. And he would give it every ounce of his remaining hockey life-force.

Cullen didn’t hesitate in agreeing to join him in Pittsburgh. “He’s been so good to me. He’s treated me so well. It’s pretty awesome to be able to win one for him like this,” he said.

No delusions, no hype, just a straightforward detailing of what the Penguins needed out of him. That’s what Rutherford does: He’s not someone to play politics, he’s not someone to do anything but give it to you unfiltered. His candor, and that of his coach, did wonders for the chemistry mix between the existing core and new recruits. Everyone knew what was expected of them, and they all played those roles to perfection.

Many of us saw Rutherford as a caretaker of a sinking ship rather than the engineer that would patch its holes and sail it to a new dawn. But Rutherford knew what was already in Pittsburgh, and he knew what needed to be augmented. He was, in the end, the right man for the job, even if the process in getting there wasn’t without a few broken eggs.

“I didn’t have to tear it down. There were great players here. I want to thank Ray Shero for his contribution and I thank Craig Patrick. Their fingerprints are on here,” he said, graciously.

He brought stability and grace to a situation that seemed on the brink of combustion. He brought in players to fill the needs the Penguins had, and whose hunger for redemption fueled the team’s competitive fire.

He brought a Stanley Cup to Pittsburgh again. And, in the process, he became the only general manager in the modern era of the NHL to win one with two different franchises.

“It was special every time. It was special in Carolina. It’s special in Pittsburgh. But to win two Stanley Cups with two different coaches and two different types of players, that feels good,” he said.

Could it have worked out any better?

Rutherford pondered the question as he stared out on the SAP Center ice, where the Penguins were still snapping pictures with friends, family and hockey’s holy grail.

“I guess not.”

--

Greg Wyshynski is a writer for Yahoo Sports. Contact him at puckdaddyblog@yahoo.com or find him on Twitter. His book, TAKE YOUR EYE OFF THE PUCK, is available on Amazon and wherever books are sold.

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