LOS ANGELES – What you expect to hear in introductory press conferences for NHL general managers: Talk of long-term success, five-year plans and other schemes intended to make that general manager indispensible until the job is done.
What you don’t expect to hear: An expiration date.
“I would suspect my term here is two or three years,” said Jim Rutherford, the former Carolina Hurricanes president and general manager that was hired by the Pittsburgh Penguins to replace Ray Shero on Friday.
What you expect to hear in introductory press conferences for NHL general managers: That he decided, after a thorough evaluation that included exit interviews, to relieve the current head coach of his duties.
What you don’t expect to hear: That the coach, Dan Bylsma, was fired based on “the information” given to the GM by ownership, which had decided that it “wants a complete change of direction,” according to Rutherford, who added, “I didn’t have several meetings with Dan to get to know him or get his side of the story.”
What you expect to hear in introductory press conferences for NHL general managers: That he’s going to build a strong front office that advises him on key moves.
What you don’t expect to hear: That he’s essentially training his replacements. “What I will do is give them big roles and a lot to say and a lot of input in our final decisions,” said Rutherford.
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.
Jim Rutherford is somehow both a caretaker and a fixer. He was hired to figure out what ails the current incarnation of the Penguins, from the coach to the personnel. He was hired so that Jason Botterill (most likely), Bill Guerin or Tom Fitzgerald will eventually replace him, potentially in two years.
This task is what lured Rutherford from the back porch after 20 years as the Carolina franchise’s president and GM?
“Five weeks ago, I decided to step down with the Hurricanes. I did both jobs there. It became really difficult for the last two or three years. It really wore on me,” he said.
“When I stepped down, I stepped down willing to move away further from the game, but still be a little bit involved. But with an open mind that if somebody called me, I would consider going somewhere if I felt I had a chance to win a championship.”
Rutherford feels they’re close, or else he wouldn’t take the job. To hear him talk about it, he also felt Bylsma was a major reason why the Penguins failed to reach the heights their talents seemed to promise they could.
You know, despite never having met the man to ask.
“We have to have a coach that can make the certain types of adjustments during a game or during a playoff series,” said Rutherford. “I don’t think they could make the proper adjustments against certain teams.”
So the 65-year-old executive will have control to hire the new coach and reconfigure the roster as he sees fit, although they “don’t have to be sweeping changes.”
In making this hire, the Penguins showed a complete reluctance to allow a novice the chance to manager a team it feels has a window to win.
Botterill, for example, has been the Penguins’ cap guy for seven years and their assistant general manager for five years. He knows the team better than anyone. But rather than give him a shot, he needs to play teachers’ pet for two years at a minimum.
(Maybe that says more about Shero’s shortcomings as a mentor than anything else.)
“I think there’s a few guys that aren’t far away from being general managers in this league,” said Rutherford, who trained his replacement Ron Francis in Carolina.
“I know I’m mentoring them. It’s up to the ownership on who replaces me. I’ll get to know these guys better and I’ll recommend [someone].”
Just because this is all unorthodox doesn’t mean it won’t work. Letting Rutherford play fantasy GM with Ron Burkle’s money for a couple of years in order to win the Cup could work. Letting Rutherford find a guy who replicates Bylsma's successs but not his mistakes could work. Letting an outsider make tough calls on personnel – Kris Letang, James Neal, Marc-Andre Fleury – could work. Letting Botterill (or FitzGerald or Guerin) gestate for a couple of years could work.
What do you expect to hear in introductory press conferences for NHL general managers?
Optimism, even in the face of criticism.
“There’s no feeling like winning the ultimate prize,” said Rutherford. “I believe we can do it here.”