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Back to square one: Penguins chose Desjardins, but he declined to help clean up their mess

Jim Rutherford takes questions after he was introduced as the new general manager for the Pittsburgh Penguins NHL hockey team  during a news conference on Friday, June 6, 2014 in Pittsburgh
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Pittsburgh Penguins general manager Jim Rutherford. (AP Photo/Keith Srakocic)

He did not get his man, and he knows how it looks.

Jim Rutherford, the new general manager of the Pittsburgh Penguins, offered the chance to coach Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin and company to Willie Desjardins, an AHL coach who has never held a head job in the NHL. Desjardins declined.

The rejection is embarrassing, the latest in a series of troubling moments for the Penguins. Not only that, it means whomever Rutherford hires will be at least his second choice, which isn’t ideal for anybody involved.

But as Rutherford passed through the airport late Friday afternoon, headed from Pittsburgh back home to North Carolina for the weekend, there was no panic in his voice. He said he would restart his coaching search and perhaps widen it, looking at a couple of candidates on his original list whom he didn’t interview. He said he would take his time.

“You know what?” Rutherford said over the phone. “I feel fine where we’re at. I know everybody’s in a hurry and everybody’s anxious. They want to know who the new coach is and everything.

“But it’s important to get somebody that wants to go there and win and pay the price that it takes to do it. And so if it takes longer, it’ll take longer. And if I don’t meet my deadline of July 1st, so be it. I’ll wait until I’m comfortable with somebody.”

There is no sugarcoating this: The past few weeks have been a mess in Pittsburgh.

The Penguins blew a 3-1 series lead and lost to the New York Rangers in the second round, failing to make the Stanley Cup Final for the fifth straight year. Owners Ron Burkle and Mario Lemieux fired GM Ray Shero without asking him for his plan – which would have included a coaching change – and without having a plan of their own.

[Puck Daddy: Penguins rejected by Willie Desjardins, will restart coach search next week]

Burkle and Lemieux wanted Shero gone. They detailed why in a candid interview with the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review. Burkle lamented how they had wasted a year because they let Shero talk them into keeping Bylsma and they tried Jacques Martin as an assistant coach. They didn’t fire Bylsma, though, saying they wanted the incoming GM to make the decision.

Firing is the easy part; hiring is the hard part. If you’re going to fire people like Shero and Bylsma, who won the Cup for you in 2009 and plenty of games since, you ought to have a pretty good idea of how you’re going to replace them. There’s no point in firing them if you can’t upgrade.

CEO David Morehouse made a point of saying the Penguins had 30 GM candidates on their original list, talked to 22 of them, brought in nine for interviews and brought back four as finalists. But was that being systematic and thorough, or was that because they didn’t know what they wanted?

They hired Rutherford, who had stepped down from his longtime post as GM and president of the Carolina Hurricanes after missing the playoffs for five straight years. The 65-year-old said he suspected his term would last two or three years. Part of his job is to mentor Jason Botterill, who was promoted to associate GM, and Bill Guerin and Tom Fitzgerald, who were both promoted to assistant GM.

Rutherford promptly fired Bylsma without interviewing him, making it clear that’s what Burkle and Lemieux wanted. The owners who were upset at wasting a year decided to try a transition period. The owners who said they wanted the new GM to decide on Bylsma told the new GM they wanted Bylsma fired.

At least eight candidates interviewed with Rutherford, including former NHL coaches Marc Crawford and Ron Wilson, NHL assistants Ulf Samuelsson and Bill Peters and AHL coach John Hynes.

Rutherford told the media Thursday that the search was “coming to an end” and he had settled on a favorite. That was Desjardins, even though the two hadn’t met in person yet because Desjardins had been coaching the Texas Stars to the Calder Cup.

Peters made the short list. But while the Hurricanes hired him to be their coach, Desjardins met with Rutherford in Pittsburgh on Thursday night and Friday morning. They didn’t reach a deal.

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Desjardins reportedly headed off to become the coach of the Vancouver Canucks. Matthew Sekeres of Team 1040 AM in Vancouver reported that the Penguins offered Desjardins only a two-year deal with no authority to hire his assistants. Desjardins is from Western Canada.

“I think we tried to meet what he was looking for, but my opinion is, he was … His mind was set on going back to Canada,” Rutherford said. “But that’s just my opinion. He’s the only guy who can really answer that.”

You cannot discount the personal side. You wonder about the professional side, though. Is the Penguins job as attractive as it seems?

The Penguins have Crosby and Malkin. But the MVPs have to be managed, the roster has holes and it’s Cup or bust. If you’re a coaching candidate with options, do you want to sign a short-term deal with a short-term GM and unhappy owners? What if you don’t meet expectations in your first year? What if Mike Babcock is available next summer? What if you stay but Rutherford leaves and a new GM comes in? Are you set up for success?

Three key questions for Rutherford and his answers:

-- Is this job harder to fill because of insecurity and high expectations?

“I don’t think it’s a harder job to fill,” Rutherford said. “From my point of view, it’s better to take my time and get somebody that really wants to be there, that’s not considering other things, possibly other teams or other offers.

“People do recognize that this is a team that’s under the microscope all the time and there are high expectations. As good a job and an opportunity as it is for someone to coach this team, it’s also extra pressure that goes with it.

“But from my point of view, it’s better to find that out now than find it out in December. And that’s why I’m taking my time. At some point in time, I will get the right guy for this job that’s comfortable with it, and he’ll have the respect of the players.”

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-- Won’t he seem like the second choice now? Won’t that disempower him?

“No,” Rutherford said, “because when I put together my original list, I had a couple other guys that could have been on that list that I didn’t put them on for varying reasons, such as the present job that they have or that it was very strong rumor that they were already going somewhere else. So I will continue to work off my list.

“There’s very capable guys there. But also I’m going to take a couple of days here and just digest all the information I have from this week and possibly open it up to two or three other guys that I was considering in the first place but didn’t interview this week for varying reasons.”

-- Are candidates concerned the GM won’t be there in two or three years?

“I don’t think that affects their decision,” Rutherford said. “There’s lots of people that would like to coach in this league for three years. There’s lots of guys who don’t make it longer than that.

“I made that comment based on where I’m at in my career and based on the fact I signed a three-year contract. I mean, that’s not cast in stone. If this works for both sides and I’m healthy, it doesn’t mean that after three years that I’m necessarily going to move on. … If it works out for everybody and I end up doing it longer, that’s fine, too.”

This still might work out for everybody. Rutherford is a good man and a veteran executive. He has been through this before. The Penguins are going to hire a qualified coach one way or another. We shouldn’t judge this search before it’s done – and really not even then.

But wow. Willie Desjardins walked away. What are Shero and Bylsma thinking right now?

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