Long-suffering fans of the Vancouver Canucks should be heartened by the hiring of veteran NHL executive Jim Rutherford – or at least, fans of the Canucks who like a lot of trades, because Rutherford is not shy to change his roster in the pursuit of a Stanley Cup championship.
Not only has he has been directly involved in three Cup wins, but he left his most recent employer with a foundation which sustains that team beyond his time with them.
I’m talking about the Pittsburgh Penguins, who’ve been ravaged by injury this year – yet here we are, one-third of the way through the regular season, and the Pens are relatively comfortably in fourth place in the difficult Metropolitan Division, closer to being in a three-way tie for second place than they are to fifth place. The Penguins have won five straight games, and they’re 7-2-1 in their past 10 games. If it wasn’t for their unfortunate luck in shootouts – they’ve played in a league-high five shootouts, and won only one of them – Pittsburgh would be right there, tied with the Carolina Hurricanes and New York Rangers.
To make that kind of team effort, in the face of significant injuries to superstar centers Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin, and young star winger Jake Guentzel, has to say something about the organization Rutherford built in his six-and-a-half years as Pens GM. Of course, having a pair of generational talents like Malkin and Crosby is going to make any GM look smart. But Cup-winning teams need elite support systems around their core stars, and Rutherford provided those systems.
Rutherford’s trade history as Penguins GM, as per CapFriendly.com, is long and bold, starting from his very first deal on June 27, 2014 – exactly three weeks after he took over the team – moving productive winger James Neal to Nashville in exchange for winger Patric Hornqvist and forward Nick Spaling. Hornqvist, of course, was an integral part of the two Cup wins Rutherford presided over in Pittsburgh.
Within his first full year running the Penguins, Rutherford traded for defensemen Ian Cole and Ben Lovejoy – both of them, key cogs in their own way, to the team that won a pair of Cups. At the beginning of his second season as Pens GM, Rutherford traded for winger Phil Kessel and center Nick Bonino; then, midway through the year, Rutherford acquired defensemen Trevor Daley and Justin Schultz, and winger Carl Hagelin, all of whom played on both Cup-winning Penguins teams.
Rutherford tinkered with the team for a short stretch after that, and he earned that right when Pittsburgh won a Cup in 2016. But he wasn’t quiet for long. Midway through his third season, Rutherford dealt for blueliners Ron Hainsey and Mark Streit. They deepened the Penguins’ back end during their second of back-to-back Cup wins.
After that second Cup win, the trade front was a mixed bag for Rutherford. As Pittsburgh faced salary cap issues, Rutherford moved to remake the supporting group around Crosby and Malkin. But by-and-large, Rutherford’s later moves were relatively inconsequential, save for the times he dealt away pieces of those two championship teams; he sent Cole to Ottawa; he traded Hagelin to L.A. for Tanner Pearson; and he shipped Kessel to Arizona for forward Alex Galchenyuk and D-man Pierre-Olivier Joseph. If that latter deal seems like Rutherford missed the mark big-time, that’s because he did. But damned if he didn’t find a taker for Galchenyuk, moving him to Minnesota for winger Jason Zucker. And Zucker is still a decent-enough generator of offense for the Penguins to give them the obvious edge in that trade.
You might not see Rutherford win every move he makes – please, show me the picture of the GM who does that – but in his total time as Penguins GM, he made 61 trades. An average of basically 10 trades per season. So there should be no question he is going to make trades in Vancouver sooner than later. And once again, he’ll need to build a robust group of supporting players around a team’s core talents.