Why Jim Rutherford Has the Pittsburgh Penguins Moving in the Right Direction

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Why Jim Rutherford Has the Pittsburgh Penguins Moving in the Right Direction
Dave Sandford/Getty Images

Jim Rutherford wasn't a popular figure when the Pittsburgh Penguins tabbed him as the organization's new general manager back in June. 

It didn't take long for pundits from around the league to spread the hate. Within 24 hours of the move, various analysts shared their views on why the ex-Carolina Hurricanes GM wasn't going to pan out in Steel City.

Bleacher Report's Adrian Dater called the hiring "the wrong move." Over at Deadspin, Ryan Lambert wrote that "Rutherford wasn't a sexy pick, or even one that was much talked-about, and the reason for that is that he probably isn't a very good one..."

Greg Wyshynski piled it on for Yahoo! Sports, writing: "Were the alternative not hiring a television star, this move by the Penguins might have come off as the most crazy-pants managerial decision we've seen in recent memory, in the sense that it bucks several conventions of how teams appoint general managers."

Sean Gentille of The Sporting News wasn't impressed either: "Rutherford is a fairly safe, uninspiring choice — at least initially. That's no real knock on him; he's just been in the game too long to be all that interesting a hire."

Dave Sandford/Getty Images

And this was before Rutherford publicly botched the hiring of a new head coach to replace Dan Bylsma.

Once all the front-office stuff was taken care of, the 65-year-old was allowed to get down to the nitty-gritty of running a hockey team; that is to say, he started making adjustments to the roster.

On paper, Rutherford wasn't the best hire for the Penguins, but his moves since taking over can at least be classified as savvy.

If you're looking at the NHL from an EA Sports perspective, you have all the reason in the world to be dissatisfied with the job Rutherford has done. James Neal, whom he recently dealt to the Nashville Predators, is viewed as one of the more dangerous scoring forwards around, capable of producing 40-plus goals from Evgeni Malkin's wing.

On the other hand, if you ask any fan outside of Tennessee to list the top 10 right wings in the NHL today, you probably won't see Patric Hornqvist's name all that often. Or at all. Since Nick Spaling isn't a known commodity to your average Penguins (or hockey) fan, the swap didn't seem to make sense.

It was characterized as an unsuccessful attempt to create cap space to re-sign pending free agents, but that didn't turn out to be the case.

In the context of the moves Rutherford has made since the draft, flipping Neal out for Hornqvist and Spaling makes perfect sense. The old-school veteran has apparently been paying more attention to so-called "fancy stats" since taking over the Penguins, and the simple statistical evaluations of player value have already made a large impact on this franchise in a short period of time.

If you believe that Fenwick and Corsi are strong indicators of future success, then you have to get on board with what Rutherford has done. Considering how quickly folks seem to be jumping off the Penguins bandwagon, you might even be able to reclaim the "I was here first!" title that means so much to sports kibitzers.

The common refrain over the last few seasons has been that the Penguins don't get enough scoring from their bottom six to compete with the top dogs in the NHL. That's been amplified in corners such as this one, and the idea slowly worked its way onto the tongues of a few talking heads at the national level. In the eyes of many fans, it became true.

The problem for the third and fourth lines wasn't that they weren't putting up enough goals. It's that they weren't hanging on to the puck and preventing goals often enough to help support the production of Sidney Crosby, Malkin, Neal, et al.

Bruce Bennett/Getty Images

The Penguins finished with a fantastic record in the regular season, but their underlying numbers were weak. Too weak to compete with the New York Rangers and miles behind the likes of the Los Angeles Kings and Chicago Blackhawks.

That's the issue that Rutherford wanted to home in on and fix. He's not necessarily dealing with Fenwick percentage as we know it, but he has made moves that should allow the Penguins to possess the puck more. This means they should be scoring more frequently and allowing fewer goals.

Sam Page of Sports Illustrated put it well:

Rutherford’s strategy for fixing this hasn't so much been to bolster the bottom half as to erase the traditional top six/bottom six divide completely. His first move—trading Neal for Hornqvist and Spaling—typified this mentality. He parted with the team’s best winger for two forwards whose odd skill sets allowed them to play all over Nashville’s lineup.

Depth scoring wasn't the issue. The bottom two lines were simply chock full of players who weren't capable of playing 50/50 hockey.

That's all the Penguins need to compete, yet the Ray Shero/Bylsma group called for as much front-loaded talent as possible. The old regime wanted to constantly add the big names, while Rutherford seems to know that he only needs to get to even with the bottom six for Crosby and Malkin to thrive.

In that regard, he's planned and executed marvelously. Fans of Neal's run-and-gun game won't like Hornqvist, but this is a guy who produced 30 goals from in close without an elite center while in Nashville. He'll more than fill the scoring void left by Neal and will also add a get-to-the-net mentality that was lacking from every line but the top one last season.

Crosby has his winger who's willing to get to the net, and now Malkin does too.

Frederick Breedon/Getty Images
Get used to seeing this, Penguins fans.

Let's not overlook the spectacular work Rutherford did on July 1 either. While just about every franchise in the NHL overpaid for the services of needed parts—that's the name of the game during free agency, isn't it?—the Penguins picked their spots and remolded the third and fourth lines on the fly via low-risk/high-reward signings.

"Low risk" isn't typically a common phrase in hockey circles in early July, but Pittsburgh kept Marcel Goc, then added Steve Downie and Blake Comeau for $2.9 million total with no further agreement beyond the 2014-15 season. In a league that sees managers toss cash and terms around like there haven't been two recent lockouts, this was a fresh approach.

Scott Audette/Getty Images

Tack on Christian Ehrhoff as one of the biggest steals of the summer, and the new-look Penguins are starting to take shape under the unlikely eye of Rutherford.

They're moving away from the blueprint of surrounding the top-end players on the roster with penalty-killers and stay-at-home types. There's versatility in place now and a top nine that's much closer to the Kings and Blackhawks than it was three months ago.

Few teams can claim to have done much work in closing that considerable gap with the league's elite. The Penguins can make that assertion after Rutherford's understated but impressive body of work thus far.

He's not done yet, and this rebranding—it's not a rebuild—will take some more time. If the handful of moves that he's made to this point are any indication, the Penguins are in much more capable hands than they were originally thought to be.

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