Should Jim Rutherford's Resignation Trigger a Penguins Rebuild?

Abbey MastraccoContributor IJanuary 28, 2021

FILE - Pittsburgh Penguins general manager Jim Rutherford has his final meeting of the season with the media at the NHL hockey team's practice facility in Cranberry, Pa., in this Wednesday, May 9, 2018, file photo. Pittsburgh Penguins general manager Jim Rutherford, a Hall of Famer who helped lead to a pair of Stanley Cup titles, resigned abruptly on Wednesday, Jan. 27, 2021. (AP Photo/Gene J. Puskar, File)
Gene J. Puskar/Associated Press

Successful executives rarely resign while seasons are still being contested, so the hockey world was stunned to hear that Pittsburgh Penguins general manager Jim Rutherford resigned Wednesday afternoon.

The three-time Stanley Cup-winning general manager, who most recently guided the Penguins to championships in 2016 and 2017, abruptly left his post for "personal reasons" just seven games into the pandemic-shortened season.

Initially, the resignation was thought to be due to an issue with his health, or possibly even concerns about COVID-19. At 71, Rutherford is in the high-risk category. But team president David Morehouse said Rutherford is in good health during a Zoom press conference. Rutherford walks five miles daily, and health wasn't a reason behind the departure.

Rutherford later told Ken Campbell of The Hockey News that he wants to "take it easy" before his contract expires at the conclusion of the season. He may retire; he may find another team, trying to work his magic in a market begging for a Stanley Cup.

Rutherford won Cups in two locations, Carolina and Pittsburgh, something that hadn't been done since the 1930s when general manager Tommy Gorman oversaw the Chicago Black Hawks' win in 1934 and then led the Montreal Maroons to a championship a year later.

Morehouse, Hall of Fame former player Mario Lemieux and co-owner Ron Burkle will launch a search right away while assistant general manager Patrik Allvin takes over in the interim, becoming the first Swedish general manager in league history. Lemieux will assist Allvin, who is considered a candidate for the full-time job.

Pirates co-owner Mario Lemieux
Pirates co-owner Mario LemieuxFred Vuich/Associated Press/Associated Press

It's a good audition for Allvin, who has been with the club since 2006 and was promoted to assistant general manager in November after working as the team's director of amateur scouting. The Penguins are a good team this season, and a good finish could get the interim tag taken off him.

Last season, another former Pittsburgh assistant general manager, Tom Fitzgerald, used his interim audition to get the full-time gig with the New Jersey Devils.

The Penguins are looking for another Rutherford, and they have groomed coaches and executives better than most. Allvin could be next.

"Jim always thought outside the box," Morehouse said. "He was one of the first general managers that I know of to be looking at analytics. I think that was what we were looking for then, and I think now we're looking for something similar. We're looking for someone who can take this great group of players and hang another banner in our rafters."

The Penguins are set up for success this season—and possibly even next as well—depending on the health and production of forwards Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin and defenseman Kris Letang. But all three are in their early 30s, and salary-cap trouble is looming.

Morehouse, Lemieux and Burkle believe the Penguins are in "win-now" mode. They are built to win with three of the league's biggest stars, and they have won consistently since Sid and Geno started playing together. They have not missed the playoffs since 2005-06, Crosby's first year in the NHL.

The duo went to the Stanley Cup Final in 2008 and won its first Cup in 2009. Other teams failed to extend their championship windows. The Los Angeles Kings won in 2012 and 2014 but now find themselves in the midst of a rebuild. Same with the Chicago Blackhawks, who won three Cups between 2010 and 2015. 

Gene J. Puskar/Associated Press

The Penguins may have no other choice but to tear it all down in two years, when the contracts of Letang and Malkin expire. As long as those two and Crosby are still around, they will try to contend, and it would be difficult to justify a rebuild to fans at present.

But the reality is that they are in a difficult place with the salary cap this season, and it's only going to get worse next year when John Marino's new contract kicks in and his $4.4 million average annual value hits the books. The club will get some relief with Cody Ceci and Colton Sceviour set to become unrestricted free agents, but that won't matter if it isn't competitive.

The next general manager will have a tough decision to make. The window of opportunity is closing quickly, and though that executive wouldn't gain any popularity points by trading away Malkin and Letang in the final years of their contracts, the packages those two would net might help the team retool quicker than if they play out their final days in Pittsburgh.

The Penguins don't have a ton of prospects knocking at the door. Their high draft picks could end up being used as currency at the trade deadline. They will need to rebuild at some point, and the question is whether they should try to start the process in a year or two or in five years when Crosby is gone, along with any hope of being competitive.

If rebuilding sooner rather than later is out the door, then the next general manager will have to be a cap whiz. The blue line needs to be remade, and they don't have much in terms of resources or prospects to make that happen. And the next general manager will have to hope Crosby, Malkin and Letang stay healthy and productive into their late 30s.

Based on the way the team is set up, a deep group of forwards is doing the heavy lifting for a thin group of defensemen. There is a big drop-off in talent after Letang, Marino and Marcus Pettersson. Goaltending has been so-so, but they got rid of Matt Murray in the offseason, and that will only benefit them in the end.

According to NaturalStatTrick.com, the Penguins' expected goals-for percentage ranks among the top 10 in the league (12.01, No. 9), and their Corsi for percentage is toward the middle (52.13, No. 13). They're 4-2-1 in the ultra-competitive East Division, so they should be able to get into the playoffs and make a deep run. The embarrassment of their qualifying-round defeat to the Montreal Canadiens in last season's bubble tournament still stings.

So who could they turn to outside of Allvin? There is an obvious candidate on the market who knows the team well: Ray Shero. He helped build the 2008 and 2009 teams around Crosby and Malkin. The owners are familiar with him, and so are the stars.

Tom Canavan/Associated Press

He's been out of a job for a year, with the Devils firing him and replacing him with Fitzgerald in January 2020. Shero isn't afraid to make some shrewd moves—the June 2016 Taylor Hall-Adam Larsson trade immediately comes to mind.

But a move like that might be viewed as going backward. Morehouse stressed analytics, and while Shero used them, his former bosses, Devils owners Josh Harris and David Blitzer, seemed to want him to use them more. They made analytics hires without his approval.

And in the end, he failed to hang on to Hall. The marriage with the Devils ended in a bitter divorce and another rebuilding year.

Former Arizona Coyotes general manager John Chayka seems to fit the analytics mold, but he's suspended through 2021. If the Penguins wanted to make a splash, they could hire his sister, Meghan, a data scientist who co-founded the sports analytics company Stathletes.

Major League Baseball has its first female general manager in Kim Ng, who was recently hired by the Miami Marlins after working in baseball for more than three decades, so it's past time to give a woman a chance to break through in hockey ops.

However, the Penguins are more likely to go with someone like Jason Botterill, a former associate general manager under Shero who now holds the same position with the Seattle Kraken. Or Mike Gillis, the former general manager of the Vancouver Canucks who, at 62, has plenty of experience and has always been open about his usage of advanced stats. Dale Tallon is out there, too.

It's an attractive job, but a new general manager just might mean the end of a dynasty.