In all the hoopla and dreams of another potential run to the Cup, it’s easy and somewhat natural to overlook just how the Canes are in their third Eastern Conference finals series since 2002, becoming one of the model franchises in all of hockey. After all, the last person you likely think of when gazing out of the window of a skyscraper is the building’s architect.
And while this coaching staff and its players deserve a lion’s share of the credit for knocking off division champions New Jersey and Boston in two thrilling, take-it-to-the-limit series, it's time once again to look upstairs in the RBC Center, to an office in the corner of the fourth floor, the den of general manager Jim Rutherford.
In his 15th season as GM, Rutherford once again has been able to craft a team of high character hard-chargers, at times having to make difficult changes in mid-stream while building toward a common goal – winning when it counts most.
“Jim’s great strength is his consistency, and because of that you see that kind of calm, evenness throughout the whole organization,” said coach Paul Maurice. “When we’ve had our tough stretches this year he has been the calming influence, he’s been the guy that settles things down when they need settled down.
"He’s got a great feel for the team, which is a talent because he’s not in the locker room every day. He’s not one of these guys who are down there micro-managing everything. He allows people to do their jobs. So, when he does come down with a concern or suggestion you know it’s going to be well thought out and there is quite a bit of merit to it.”
“The one thing is Jim knows his team extremely, extremely well,” added associate head coach Ron Francis. “And when you are looking to tweak it a little bit, he knows what’s missing and the best possible deal to make without taking away from the chemistry of the team.”
While there are 10 holdovers from the 2006 championship team, this year’s club actually started taking shape last year, when Rutherford acquired the likes of Joe Corvo, Tuomo Ruutu, Sergei Samsonov and Patrick Eaves.
In the offseason, the trade of Erik Cole for Joni Pitkanen raised a few eyebrows among the fan base, as did Rutherford’s choice to bring back defenseman Anton Babchuk, whom some viewed as a longshot to make the transition from Russia to the NHL again, as the Carolina GM tried to shore up a defense that had just lost tons of NHL experience in Glen Wesley and Bret Hedican.
“I’ve never traded a player from here that I didn’t personally like,” Rutherford said late in the season after he re-acquired Cole in exchange for another popular Cane, Justin Williams. “Maybe that’s why so many of them come back to live here. We try to treat them and their families fairly as an organization.”
The Cole move at the trade deadline was key, but Rutherford’s eye for talent, character and the seemingly perfect match for his club occurred months earlier when he replaced coach Peter Laviolette with Maurice, his long-time friend and former Carolina coach, in early December.
Laviolette had won the Cup in 2006 and last year’s team missed out on the playoffs on the last day of the season. But after starting out the first two months at .500, Rutherford decided to pull the trigger behind the bench. The firing of Laviolette was further muddled when it was announced that Maurice would be the new coach. Fans booed for several weeks when Maurice’s name was announced before home games. No one is booing now as the Canes are ready to take on Pittsburgh on Monday night in Game 1 of the Eastern Conference finals.
Maurice was sitting at home collecting a paycheck from the Toronto Maple Leafs, a team that fired him after last season, when JR called asking him to return.
“He told me, ‘I believe you’re the guy for this job, your personality is what we need, but more importantly it’s the right thing to do,”’ Maurice said. “It was probably harder on Jimmy than it was on me. He was right. But it was more than what he said, it was the staff he put together.”
Joining Maurice would be Hall of Famer Francis, and Tom Barrasso would personally handle Cam Ward and offer an “eye in the sky” perspective with longtime Maurice coaching colleague Kevin McCarthy, while Tom Rowe would remain behind the bench. Glen Wesley was also added after last season to work with the club’s young defensemen, rounding out a so-called “dream team” coaching staff.
“There are five Stanley Cup rings on our coaching staff,” Maurice pointed out. “So, the whole environment here, created by our general manager, is we are now good enough.”
Another seemingly minor piece of the puzzle was put into place in early February when Jussi Jokinen became the third Finn added to the Carolina roster in a trade that sent Josef Melichar and Wade Brookbank, both expendable players, to Tampa Bay. This move once again displayed the true genius of Rutherford and his ability to find underachieving talent and jump-start it in Carolina. As we all shrugged and even yawned after the trade, JR saw the fit and its potential. Heading into the Pittsburgh series, Jokinen leads the playoffs with three game-winning goals and has 10 points in 14 postseason games while playing just about every conceivable position the ice during Carolina’s regular-season stretch run.
“A lot of GMs will go for some of the biggest names out there, but Jim seems to have a great idea of who is going to fit, who is going to be able to play to the best of their ability,” said Matt Cullen. “It seems like a lot of guys come here, myself included, and they get the best out of them, you play your best hockey here. Jimmy seems to be so good at finding diamonds in the rough that are struggling and they come here and they give them the space and confidence to play.
“Jimmy deserves a lot of credit for these moves and some of the guys they’ve stuck with and are loyal to. Chad LaRose is a perfect example of that. They gave him an opportunity and he’s run with it and become a great player.”
We’ve seem some crafty moves from Rutherford before during Cup runs in 2002 and 2006, acquiring Sean Hill, Kevyn Adams, Hedican and Kevin Weekes seven seasons ago, while adding Mike Commodore, Babchuk, Doug Weight and Mark Recchi in the Cup winning season. None of the players Rutherford dealt away ever amounted to much. It’s an undistinguished list that includes Chris Dingman, Shane Willis, Byron Ritchie, Sandis Ozolinsh, Steve Halko, Jesse Boulerice, Mike Zigomanis, Niklas Nordgren and Danny Richmond.
And it’s not as if Carolina has an open pocket book. Rutherford’s marching orders from owner Peter Karmanos are clear – put a competitive product on the ice at well under the NHL salary cap.
“Judging talent for him has developed over the years because we’re not a franchise that just goes out and takes the top three free agents off the market at the end of every year and says, ‘Here coach, just work these guys around,”’ Maurice said. “Jim has to be a lot more specific in how he approaches the business. Jim has always had a very acute sense of the needs of the hockey team and areas that need improved. There are times where there are probably players out there that might fit that we can’t get, it just doesn’t work (money-wise). Jim always has a belief in the team and tries to go out and find those people that we need.”
While Rutherford always sits by himself during games and is a fist full of nerves, his business demeanor is one of calm reassurance. Very seldom does he head to the locker room during the season for rah-rah speeches or jolting criticism of a player.
“What he has always done well is read personalities and have a sense of where our room is at,” Maurice said. “And it’s not about hanging around the locker room and being a buddy to the players, he’s not one of those guys. He’s not reading them the riot act after a couple of losses. Jim never does anything out of reaction. It is always so well thought out and planned. And because of that there is a certain consistency. He never talks to the team post game because he understands the emotions of the game. He probably has been in on one or two meetings with the group and they were all positive.”
“The big thing is he is fair and honest,” added Francis. “No matter where you are, as a player or coach, whatever role you have in an organization or company, you always want the truth. There is a lot of times he’s put in situations that are not very easy to deal with and you may not like what he has to say, but at the end of the day he doesn’t lie and he doesn’t promise things he can’t deliver on."
Rutherford played 13 seasons in the NHL as a goaltender with a sub .500 record of 151-227-59. As the second-longest tenured general manager in the league, he’s batting well over 90 percent on personnel moves, finding a niche and championship form in the front office of the Canes that eluded him as a player.
After winning the NHL’s Executive of the Year award in 2002 and 2006 it’s hard to say if JR is a front-runner for the honor yet again halfway through the postseason. One thing is clear, he’s in the chase and so are his underdog Carolina Hurricanes. Another kick save and a beauty, Jimmy.