Ray Shero current General Manager of the New Jersey Devils and former Penguins GM spent 8 seasons at the helm of the Pittsburgh Penguins. Since being relieved of his duties former Hartford Whalers/Carolina Hurricanes General Manager, Jim Rutherford took over the reins of the Pens. The question that has been popping up lately has been, who’s done better as the Penguins visionary?
During the Ray Shero era, Pens fans were promised a dynasty. The expectations were high as the talent of the team, now with Sidney Crosby, was on the rise. Also with the new CBA, small market teams like the Penguins were expected to turn things around and be potential playoff contenders on a regular basis. When it comes to being in the playoffs, Mr. Shero delivered. Since taking over, the Pens were a mainstay in the post season picture. Even making back to back appearances in the Stanley Cup Finals and walking away with Lord Stanley’s famous chalice in the second of the two. But after that the Penguins began wane. While it’s hard to make it to the Stanley Cup Finals it’s extremely hard to make it 3 years in a row. So losing in the Conference Semi-Finals the year after winning the cup was something most seemed to forgive and understand. However, with early exits in all of Shero’s following years but one, where the Bruins swept the Penguins in the Conference Finals, questions surfaced about his abilities as GM. The fan chatter quickly went from “In Shero We Trust” to “Fire Shero!” After the Penguins, who ended their season in 1st place with 109 points, lost in the second round after having a 3-1 series lead versus the New York Rangers in 2014, the fans got their wish and Shero was relieved of his duties as General Manager. After his departure, angry fans who were promised a dynasty became unchained. Statements like, “Ray Shero never got Crosby a scoring winger”, “Shero did nothing in the draft!” and “He wasted some of Malkin and Crosby’s best years with poor management”
After saying goodbye to Mr. Shero, the Penguins ushered in Jim Rutherford. Mr. Rutherford sold his ownership shares and left after 20 years as GM of the Carolina Hurricanes’ franchise. The only franchise Rutherford as ever been a GM for. This move was an interesting choice by the Penguins ownership group. Fans and media alike were not sure what to make of it and it seemed as though there was mixed feelings about the selection, and rightfully so. While Rutherford had come from a long tenure as General Manager of a franchise which gave him lots of experience, that did not translate into winning. In fact, in the 20 years Rutherford was GM with the Whalers/Hurricanes franchise, his team only reached the post season 5 times and winning the Stanley Cup once, which came directly after the lockout of 2004/05. His record did not speak volumes for the length of time he’s been a GM in the NHL. But the fans were willing to give him a chance and felt that maybe this front office shake up and coaching change will be just what this Penguins team needed to bring home the silver glory again. But skepticism arose in Rutherford’s first season, as the Penguins were bounced from the playoffs in the first round in a truly dominate fashion by the New York Rangers, four games to one. Now, in Rutherford’s second year in the front office, the Pens picked up where they left off last season. The struggles in the beginning of this season were real. A little too real for Pens fans around the world. It looked as though the Pittsburgh franchise had a real shot at not making the playoffs for the first time since 2005/06, Crosby’s rookie campaign. The reality of not making the playoffs set in for Rutherford and he knew it was time to make a change. A mid-season coaching change seemed to do the trick when Rutherford hired Mike Sullivan as the team’s new bench boss. Taking the Pens from outside the playoff picture to second in the division in a very short amount of time. Along the way Rutherford made some defining moment trades in acquiring Trevor Daley, Carl Hagelin, and Phil Kessel. Now, fans have gone from “Rutherford is a joke” to “Rutherford is a genius!” in the matter of one year.
Who is the real king of the 7th floor suites? Is it Shero, the man who brought the Penguins their first Stanley Cup since ’92? Is it Rutherford, who is in the process of potentially bringing another cup to Pittsburgh this year? Or is it the fact that Penguins fans can only see 6 inches in front of their face and immediate results are all that matter when it comes to vilifying or praising Penguins’ General Managers?
The case for Shero is strong. He not only brought constant post-season appearances but also a Stanley Cup to the city of Pittsburgh. And if people think that he did not try to bring a scoring winger in for Crosby, then they are sadly mistaken. Ray Shero brought Marian Hossa, James Neal, and Jarome Iginla to play alongside number 87. Hossa spent some time injured and when he came back Crosby was injured. There just wasn’t a lot of time between when Hossa was acquired and when they were both healthy for anyone to see what they could do together. But the short time they did play together before Hossa left for what he thought was greener pastures, they did work well. Neal and Iginla didn’t work out because Crosby is not an easy person to play with (which is something I’ll get into in another article). He expects a lot of hard work from his linemates, and that was something those two were just not able to give. But, was Crosby not successful with the wingers of Dupuis and Kunitz, both of which Shero traded for? But he did nothing in the draft, people say. Once the Penguins began to have success on the ice, they of course began to choose lower in the draft. It is incredibly hard for any GM/team to draft a lot of players, low in the draft and make them successful. The few that do, a lot of the time are players that don’t make an impact until later on, at least not immediately like most expect. Some of Shero’s draft picks are players we see now beginning to make a statement in the NHL, like Rust, Kuhnhackl, Sundqvist, Pouliot, and Murray. While GM Rutherford gets the credit for calling these players up to the big team, it was Ray Shero that saw the potential in them and drafted them, many of which were very low in their class.
As for Jim Rutherford as a Penguins GM the evidence to back the notion that he’s the right man for the job is minimal. Rutherford is only in his second year as the Penguins GM and in his first season the team was ousted out of the playoffs like a Space X rocket out of Earth’s atmosphere. In the second season at the helm, the team had the rockiest start of any Penguins team since the last year they won the cup. And what happen then was the same thing that happen this year, Head Coaches were fired and the new men behind the bench turned things around. But look at what Rutherford has done in trades to help improve this team, is what some would say. Right out of the gate the Penguins GM went out and made a deal that brought Patric Hornqvist to Pittsburgh. Mr. Rutherford went also set out to get a top end scoring winger to play alongside 87 in Phil Kessel. However, Kessel has never found any real chemistry with the Pens captain. And so Kessel has become another failed experiment in the search to find a goal scoring winger to play alongside Crosby. In other trades though, the Pens GM made out like a kid in a free candy store when he traded for the likes of Carl Hagelin and Trevor Daley. Rutherford dumped players in those deals that just no longer fit into the Penguins system, which now boasted speed as its main fuel source. That’s something that Peron and Scuderi just didn’t have. As for Rutherford’s ability to draft prospects that either make a statement in the NHL immediately or over time, his track record is bleak. While the Penguins GM has only NHL draft under his belt in Pittsburgh, he can’t be judge based solely on that. The only player at the moment that is worth mentioning that he has drafted since arriving in Pittsburgh is Daniel Sprong. Drafted 46th overall by Rutherford and has had his career poorly managed by the Pens executive since day one. As for Rutherford’s other 20 years of being a GM and making draft choices with the Hurricanes’ franchise, you won’t be able to find evidence of anything much better. Routinely picking high in the draft due to poor regular season performances by his teams, Rutherford still only managed to draft a handful of players in 20 years that have made any sort of contribution in the NHL. The most significant players Rutherford drafted while in Hartford/Raleigh were Jeff O’neill, Jean-Sebastian Giguere, Sami Kapanen, Craig Adams, Erik Cole, David Tanbe, Cam Ward, Eric Staal, Andrew Ladd, Jack Johnson, Brandon Sutter, Jeff Skinner, and Justin Faulk. While that is a list of significant players who most have played over 400 games in the NHL, many of them accomplished that with different franchises. Let us not forget as well, that GM Rutherford was in charge in Carolina when the, at the time Penguins GM Shero, made an offer to trade Jordan Staal for Brandon Sutter. Rutherford approved and Staal went on to be a non-dominate factor, unlike he was playing in Pittsburgh. Sutter came and filled the third line center role nicely at a much cheaper price. This wasn’t the first time Rutherford agreed to a deal that relieved the Penguins of some of their salary cap hits. Pre-lockout/CBA era the Pittsburgh Penguins were floundering like a fish out of water when it came to money. They no longer could afford certain players like Jaromir Jagr and Ron Francis. Jagr was sent to the Capitals and Francis was picked up by none other than Jim Rutheford’s Hurricanes. Francis went on to captain the Carolina squad as Rutherford pieced together a team that consisted of the likes of Rod Brind’Amour, Kevin Weekes, Tom Barrasso, Artus Irbe, Glen Wesley, David Tanbe, Craig Adams, Sami Kapanen, Erik Cole, and Jeff O’Neill. In 2002 that team made it all the way to the Stanley Cup finals only to lose to the Detroit Red Wings 4 games to 1. In Jim Rutherford’s now 22 years as a GM he’s had some great moments that have been spattered on a canvas of mediocrity.
When it comes to being the General Manger of the Pittsburgh Penguins, the expectations are high from a city that takes its sports teams very seriously. The expectations are so high that I believe that not one singular GM is responsible for the good and bad that has befallen upon this franchise. If you take a look at the Penguins roster the core players of the team are of course Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin, Kris Letang, and Marc-Andre Fleury. These are the players that are the foundation of this Penguins franchise. These are players that championship caliber teams have been built around. These are players that were not drafted by the two previously mentioned General Managers. These are players that were drafted by Craig Patrick, the man who held the Penguins’ front office keys for 17 years. Ray Shero took what Patrick started and built upon it to create Stanley Cup contenders in Pittsburgh once again. And now Pittsburgh gets to see the fruits of Shero’s labor now that his low draft picks are beginning to make an impact on the big stage. Rutherford’s job now (with the help of Jason Botterill) is to put the roof on the house that Patrick and Shero built. Meaning find a way to win a few more cups before the foundation crumbles.