Penguins gamble on Jim Rutherford as GM, fumble on firing Dan Bylsma as coach

Nicholas J. Cotsonika
Jim Rutherford, left, takes questions as Penguins President David Morehouse listens after Rutherford was introduced as the new general manager for the Pittsburgh Penguins NHL hockey team at a news conference on Friday, June 6, 2014, in Pittsburgh. (AP Photo/Keith Srakocic)

The day the Penguins fired general manager Ray Shero, the owners – Mario Lemieux and Ron Burkle – gave an exclusive interview to Pittsburgh Tribune-Review columnist Dejan Kovacevic. They aired their grievances.

Among their laments: They let Shero talk them into keeping coach Dan Bylsma, and they decided to try Jacques Martin as an assistant in the hopes he could help adjust the team’s style for the playoffs.

“If you look back at that today, in some ways, I wish we hadn’t made that bet,” Burkle told Kovacevic. “Because that’s another year. So if we’re disappointed, it’s that we lost a year to the change that we should have made already.”

They also insisted they hadn’t fired Bylsma along with Shero because they wanted to act systematically, not emotionally, and they wanted the incoming GM to evaluate the situation and make the decision himself.

“We’re going to give him the ability to change it the way he wants,” Burkle told Kovacevic.

Three weeks later, this is what happened:

The Penguins hired Jim Rutherford as their new GM.

The two owners upset at failing to make the Stanley Cup Final for the fifth straight season hired a man who just stepped down as the GM of the Carolina Hurricanes after failing to make the playoffs for the fifth straight season.

The two owners upset at wasting a year just entrusted more of the primes of Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin to a 65-year-old who was worn out by his last job. Rutherford suspects his term will last only two or three years. This could turn out to be a transition period. The Penguins promoted Shero’s lieutenants, making Jason Botterill associate GM and both Bill Guerin and Tom Fitzgerald assistant GMs.

Rutherford also fired Bylsma on Friday – and made it clear he based the decision largely on what Lemieux and Burkle told him.

“We,” Rutherford said, “determined that it was time to go in a different direction with the coach also. What the ownership wants here is a complete change of direction, one with the general manager and one with the coach.”

Later, Rutherford added: “I took the information from the people that were here. I didn’t have several meetings with Dan to get to know him and evaluate him or take his side of the story.”

Considering all that, the hiring of Rutherford was an interesting bet by Lemieux and Burkle, and the handing of Bylsma was disappointing.

The Penguins announced the firing of coach Dan Bylsma, who guided Pittsburgh to the Stanley Cup in 2009. (Reuters)

CEO David Morehouse made sure to point out the Penguins had 30 GM candidates on their original list. They talked to 22 of them, brought in nine for interviews and brought back four as finalists. As experienced and respected as Rutherford might be, was he really the best man for this particular job?

“This is a job that most GMs would like to have, and I was very lucky and very fortunate at this point in my career that I was given this opportunity,” Rutherford said.

And if Lemieux and Burkle didn’t want Bylsma back, why didn’t they just do the dirty work themselves? It made sense to keep their options open, but only if the new GM was going to make Bylsma a legitimate option. Bylsma will be OK. Other jobs are still open. He might find work elsewhere soon, anyway. But they made him sit around for three weeks for no good reason in the end, and that’s no way to treat a man who won you a Stanley Cup, no matter what has happened since.

To be fair, Rutherford did not have the same resources in Carolina that he will have in Pittsburgh. The Hurricanes spend to a budget; the Penguins spend to the salary cap. Rutherford hinted at that when he said the Penguins clearly have a different “business model” and “you can figure out what I’m saying.”

But Rutherford was the GM of that franchise for two decades, responsible for how the team was built under the circumstances. He won the Stanley Cup in 2006, the first season of the cap era, and went to the Eastern Conference final in ’09, when he lost to the Penguins. But the fact is, the Hurricanes have not won for a long time, and he will face plenty of challenges in Pittsburgh even with Crosby and Malkin – partly because of Crosby and Malkin, who take up $18.2 million in cap space between them.

 In the short term, Rutherford has to put the Penguins over the top. “I don’t think we have all the pieces here to get back to where the Penguins were in ’09, but with some changes, they don’t have to be sweeping changes, we can do this in the very near future,” Rutherford said. “My job now is to come in and change some of those things that we need to strengthen in order to get to the end."

In the long term, Rutherford has to lay the foundation for his exit. He mentored Ron Francis in Carolina. Now he will mentor Botterill, Guerin and Fitzgerald in Pittsburgh. Botterill, he said, is “getting very close” to being ready for a GM job and will work alongside him. Guerin will be his liaison to the players.

Rutherford seems to have identified some of the Penguins’ key shortcomings:

— He wants a coach who can adjust within a game, a season and a playoff series, something Bylsma did not do well enough. “Based on looking at the Penguins from a distance, because that’s where I was, I don’t think that they could make the proper adjustments against certain teams, so that’s going to be a key factor when I’m looking at a head coach,” he said.

— He wants more vocal leadership, something Crosby and especially Malkin don’t bring. “Looking at it from the outside, I suspect that we have good character in that room, but it’s quiet,” he said. “It’s a quiet approach where you don’t have one or two guys that can stand up in the room and say this is what’s really going on.”

— He wants more depth. “I will say I think that our supporting cast has to be improved,” he said. “I look at our fourth-line players, and some of those guys are in double-digit minuses, and you can’t have that. You have to have energy on your fourth line. You have to have penalty-killers. You certainly have to have guys that are capable of playing defensively and not costing you that much on goals against.”

— He wants to hire someone in analytics, even though he used plus/minus – a discredited, old-school stat – when talking about those fourth-liners. “I don’t think that we’re up to speed here on the use of analytics,” he said. “This is something that I’ve gotten used to over the last few years. The analytics, if used properly, are great to really check everybody’s opinion.”

There are so many questions: Whom does Rutherford hire as coach? Does he buy out Marc-Andre Fleury, and if he does, with whom does he replace him in goal? Does he trade James Neal or Kris Letang? Can he re-sign pending free agent Matt Niskanen? How does he fill out the supporting cast under the cap so this team isn’t so top-heavy?

Is Rutherford what the Penguins think he is at this stage? Are the Penguins what Rutherford thinks they are? Hurricanes owner Peter Karmanos sang Rutherford’s praises in the Raleigh News & Observer, but he also said this:

“The stress level he had been feeling the past three or four years … I was worried about him. And I told him when we play Pittsburgh, I plan to sit and talk to him, and if I think he’s getting stressed out again, I’ll let him know, as a friend. He’s going back into the pressure-cooker.”

He sure is.