The last time Jim Rutherford “retired” as a GM in the NHL, his time spent puttering around the house with his pants hiked up too high lasted all of 40 days. The hockey world will have to wait a little longer than that to see whether he means it for real this time, but it’s unlikely Rutherford will keep us waiting for an extended period. Whether it has been making a blockbuster trade, firing a coach or determining his own future in the game, Jim Rutherford has always been a decisive guy. Once he makes a decision, such as the shocking one he made today to resign as the GM of the Pittsburgh Penguins, he makes his move with hesitating. It has served him well.
This much we know. Rutherford sent an email to the coaching staff and players on the Pittsburgh Penguins Tuesday morning that, after seven years and two Stanley Cups, he was resigning from the organization months before his contract was due to expire. The Penguins were just as shocked by the news as everyone else was. A source close to the team confirmed that the decision to step away was Rutherford’s alone and it was not performance-, behavior-, scandal- or health-related. They tried to talk him out of it, to no avail.
In fact, Rutherford made it clear in a phone interview with TheHockeyNews.com that it was his decision and his future is nowhere near being finalized. “It’s just time now to take it easy,” Rutherford said. “My contract is up in June and when that’s up, I may retire or I may consider jumping back in.”
Anyone who has dealt with Rutherford over the years, whether they are members of the media, agents or fellow hockey executives, can vouch for Rutherford’s character and integrity. One of only two men to win a Stanley Cup as a GM with two different teams – Tommy Gorman is the other – Rutherford has always been one of the most likeable and decent people in the game. When agents take to Twitter to sing the praises of a GM, that’s a pretty telling indicator. So when that happens, the first thing people often wonder is whether or not it is health related. After all, Rutherford is in his 70s and there is a global pandemic raging. A source close to the team said it has nothing to do with ill health and Rutherford confirmed that. In fact, he said the opposite is the case.
“(The pandemic) hasn’t worn me down and, in fact, it’s been better for me,” Rutherford said. “I’ve lost weight. I’ve exercised more. I probably feel better than I have in a long time.”
There is, of course, still some air of mystery about all of this. When asked why he would leave now instead of simply continuing with the team until his contract runs out after this season, Rutherford said, “I’m not going to get into that.” There was no animosity between Rutherford or anyone in the Penguins ownership group and it was confirmed that the departure in no way had anything to do with the ongoing lawsuit against the Penguins that was launched by Jarrod Skalde, a former assistant coach with the Wilkes-Barre Penguins of the American League. In the lawsuit, Skalde alleges that his wife was sexually assaulted by former Wilkes-Barre head coach Clark Donatelli and that Penguins former assistant GM Bill Guerin, now the GM of the Minnesota Wild, urged Skalde to keep quiet about the matter.
Even Penguins’ CEO David Morehouse was also taken aback by the news. It was Morehouse who hired Rutherford in 2014 and gave him the resources and autonomy to make the changes that led to the team winning back-to-back Stanley Cups in 2016 and ’17. “As far as Jim’s health is concerned, I know he’s in good health because he walks over five miles a day,” Morehouse said. “And I see his minutes on his phone and he’s constantly working. He’s plenty healthy.”
The Penguins are in a difficult spot here. Because, like their on-ice roster, their bench strength in the management ranks is not very deep. And like their on-ice roster, they’ve been a victim of their own success. At different times over Rutherford’s tenure, Jason Botterill, Tom Fitzgerald and Guerin have been assistants. Whoever takes this job, though, will face a huge challenge, given that the Penguins are straddling that existence between playoff contender and an organization in need of a rebuild. Whoever comes in to take the job will have to do so knowing full well that the day of reckoning is coming with this franchise very soon and he’ll be faced with an aging roster and not much in the way of NHL prospects. Part of the reason for that lies with the deals that Rutherford has made to keep the Penguins as a legitimate Stanley Cup contender in the hopes that Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin and Kris Letang might have one more Cup run in them.
“It’s a good organization and I was treated well here,” Rutherford said. “When I first came here, I was hoping to have a chance to win a Cup in a couple of years and ended up winning two and ended up staying almost seven years.”