PETER KARMANOS: We’re here to announce that we’ve signed Mr. Rutherford to a five-year contract to continue as general manager of the team. I would be remiss if I didn’t say how pleased I was with being able to retain Jim. He’s been the most, I think, successful general manager in the league over his last term, between the Stanley Cup and going to the finals and being a real stalwart in bringing hockey to this community. So I’m very, very pleased to announce Jim’s contract. Do you have anything to say, Mr. Rutherford?
JIM RUTHERFORD: Well, I appreciate the comments and the contract, thank you very much. I’m very fortunate to work in a good organization and for such a good owner that has been my friend for a long time, and to continue this relationship and to believe in hockey in North Carolina and the growth of it and where it’s going and the fact that we have the core of a team here that I believe can win again. So I’m excited about continuing on. It’s obvious that we’re disappointed with the outcome of last season and that we have some work to do, but I feel good about where we’re going next year.
KARMANOS: I agree with Jim 100 percent. Our team will be a contender next year. I believe that if we had made the playoffs this year, we would have been a really strong team. The real problem was actually making it to the playoffs. As I watch the first two games of the different series, I think we would have been a very competitive team and had a very good chance of winning it again. Of course, I feel that next year, assuming we can sign players that we need to sign, that we will be a Stanley Cup contender.
On hits to the head in this year’s playoffs
KARMANOS: I think any time any player in any sport is seriously injured, the people that are responsible for running the sport, from the owners to the general managers and the coaches, are concerned. Understanding what the right steps are is very difficult. This year, a couple of players have been injured in fights, so of course the focus has been on fighting. We’re really trying to understand what things you can do to make the game better and make it safer and not detract from its excitement. We’re not going to sacrifice players’ health for excitement, but at the same time, it’s not a simple thing to say “let’s go do this,” or else we could have eliminated this from this game and all the other contact sports years ago.
On the importance of continuity to the franchise
KARMANOS: I think continuity is one of the most important things in all of sports and one of the most ignored things in most sports. We struggled really hard to come to terms with letting Paul Maurice go. He has proved that he is an outstanding coach, but for the sake of continuity, it was very difficult to do that. We were very lucky to be able to hire Peter (Head Coach Laviolette), and he’s done a tremendous job, and again we want to strive for continuity above all things. We don’t want to substitute mediocrity for continuity, but in order to get to the levels that we believe this team is at, you need that continuity first.”
On Rutherford being responsible for the “team” mentality
KARMANOS: Absolutely. He’s the master of that. Sometimes it drives me crazy, but he’s real good at that (laugh).
On Rutherford’s main strengths
KARMANOS: Jim has the ability, number one, to be able to stand up to the owner, which is a very important strength to have (laugh). Number two, he is extremely diligent about doing his job. And the third thing is that he has a great sense for talent.
On a time when Rutherford had to stand up to the owner
RUTHERFORD: About five minutes ago. We were doing the budget (laugh). It’s an interesting relationship, because we do have different views on things, but ultimately the owner has the final say. But I think that’s part of the strength of the long-lasting relationship, is that I am given the opportunity to voice my opinion, ultimately knowing where the buck stops, as you will. But we at different times debate things, some are big, some are small. But at the end of the day, we have a great respect for each other.
On why Rutherford never moved to a different team
RUTHERFORD: It’s a few things. I won’t necessarily prioritize them, but my relationship with Mr. Karmanos goes back a long ways. I think it says a lot, in sports where people move around, and I’m not sure but I think we’ve been together about 24 years. Whatever it is, it’s been a long time. With that being said, we’ve invested a lot in hockey together, and especially hockey in North Carolina. When you’re looking at something going, it doesn’t always just go in the same direction all the time. It goes, then it wilts a little bit, it grows a little more. But we’re at the point where the growth of hockey and how it’s been established in North Carolina, I and we have invested so much in it and I want to continue to do that. One, I really believe in the franchise and always have, two, I believe that the sport is growing more and more each year here with the growth of the market, and I also believe that the group of players we have, the core we have here, with the right changes has the chance to win again. We all want to win. It’s been fun to watch – not fun at times – but it feels good to watch where this franchise was in day one, we had some of those conversations today back to our first game in Greensboro, to where we are today, and to where it will be five years from now. I think that’s been a great experience, and it’s what we believed in from the start, and we’re almost where we need to be.
On where the franchise will be five years from now
RUTHERFORD: Just from the growth of the market alone, that will help the growth of the franchise. This city is not any different than any other city. I think we can all name one or two in each sport where if you don’t win on a consistent basis you’re still going to draw the fans, but having a good product and winning certainly helps. We believe that we can continue to do that and continue to grow the franchise to the point where the eight or nine or ten soft nights we have on weeknights, we hope that we can fill those gaps in where we can have 41 nights like we have on Friday and Saturday nights. That’s one of our challenges. And to have a consistent playoff team, which always helps every franchise.
KARMANOS: We think that in five years we will have established ourselves as one of the premier franchises in the National Hockey League. We think we’re well on our way, and if you were to graph where the Carolina Hurricanes were in the pecking order of the 30 teams five years ago, where we are today and where we’re going to be five years from now, I think that everybody would agree that we’re certainly on the right path. Jim is capable of making sure that we retain our status as a premier franchise, which generally means you win a lot more than you lose.
On why the contract is five years long
KARMANOS: That’s all I thought I could take Mr. Rutherford for (laugh). No, five years I think is a pretty standard contract for a general manager in the sports business. If I could get away with one year, I would. Just kidding (laugh).
On the payroll for next year
KARMANOS: First of all, you really can’t answer all these questions until we get all our hockey people together in June, but in order to keep the team intact with the key players, we’re going to have to go up three or four million dollars. We already took step one with Whitney. The second thing is, and we’ll make a decision depending on what players are available, whether or not we’re going to step up from there and get a player we think puts us over the top. That’s always a real tough call. Some teams coming out of the lockout made some decisions, looked like they made some really good decisions, but in fact it buried their team. It’s a very, very thin line that you walk in trying to have a championship team. We have excellent chemistry right now, we have, I think, an outstanding core of players. It looks like we could use one or two key players, but we’re not going to go out and do anything foolish. We want to make sure the player we bring in is the right player.
On the team’s recent trend of signing previously underrated players like Cory Stillman and Ray Whitney
KARMANOS: I think that’s been the story all along, whether you’re coming out of the lockout or not. You have players that everybody thinks are sure things that will sign long-term contracts and then be injured or something like that. You have players that were key participants in getting a team to the Stanley Cup that become a free agent, some team signs them and it doesn’t help them. Sometimes you sign them and it helps. It’s really a judgment call, and that’s why it’s important that we have a general manager like Jim, because he’s been really accurate on those calls most of the time. (Turning to Rutherford) You still make mistakes (laugh). Sometimes you get a mulligan, sometimes you don’t.
On not viewing the team as a non-playoff team
KARMANOS: That’s a very good observation. We’re looking at it as a team that could have won the Stanley Cup, so we don’t have to re-tool the team.
On whether it’s frustrating to know that the tools were in place this year.
KARMANOS: Let me answer the question in maybe a different fashion. There’s a couple of guys that for the last 20 years, I’ve made bets with on the Stanley Cup, and we bet on each team and each series and we have a very unique way of doing that. Well, I wouldn’t bet with them this year because I was too pissed off. So yeah, it’s really frustrating. I’d like to be able to go blame somebody, but I’ll just blame the fates this year.
RUTHERFORD: Hopefully one of these cameras is HBO so you can get that (laugh).
On Carolina’s ability to attract free agents
RUTHERFORD: When I talk about the growth of the franchise, the first year that we were here, no one stayed here in the off-season. Now probably half our players stay in the off-season. We’ve got alumni players actually here, Bobby Kron, Steve Halko, Ron Francis, but he also works with us, Tom Barasso’s moving back here now. This is becoming more and more of a place where people want to live, and they want to live here because it’s a great place to live and they want to live here to still be part of the franchise. It’s a great feeling from that point of view when you look at where we were 10 years ago to where we are today. And it’s kind of the projection, and you don’t get the full answer about where we’re going to be five years from now, but my guess is that there’s going to be a lot more players that are living here and calling this home.
KARMANOS: I think it’s a matter of budget. There’s certain players that have ties, let’s say out in California, that are going to go play for a west coast team, but assuming all things are equal, the Carolina Hurricanes are a team that a lot of players wouldn’t hesitate to come play at.
On how negotiating his own contract was different than negotiating his players’ contracts
KARMANOS: He has to deal with me (laugh).
RUTHERFORD: Yeah, that is the toughest part. The agents are relatively easy compared to my boss (laugh).
KARMANOS: Our contract negotiations usually take three or four minutes.
RUTHERFORD: We write it on a napkin. Not between periods, because we don’t talk during the games (laugh).
On resigning Scott Walker
RUTHERFORD: I think it’s going fine. We’ve started the talks with him. We have a slotting system here that we started last year with our players with our payroll, and the agent pretty much knows where we’ve slotted Scott in. So we have a process going now, hopefully it turns out for us. We’d really like to keep him, I think he likes it here a lot, we like him, so we’ll see where that goes. I’m not sure it will move along quite as quick as Ray (Whitney)’s did. We do have until July 1, so both sides have a long time to think about it.
On adding other free agents
RUTHERFORD: It will be easier to answer that question once we get our whole hockey staff together in the first week of June and get a better understanding of what the coaches want. We have to get a better understanding of what we’re doing with our defense and who’s healthy. We carried 10 defensemen this year because we weren’t healthy, but we want to get it down to seven or eight to make it easier for the coaching staff. Are we going to have one of the defensemen retire? I don’t know. But once we understand that, it may dictate that we go out and get a defenseman, it may not. Also we want to look at the center ice spot on the third line. I think that’s a key position for us. The guys we had this year did OK, we never replaced Matt Cullen fully, which is difficult to do of course, he had a career year. But at the same time I think center ice is a position we will look at very closely when we have our hockey meetings
On whether Rutherford hopes to sign another contract after the new one expires
RUTHERFORD: It’s a great challenge and I love the franchise and I love the sport, but sometimes the job gets difficult, and it can be very wearing on you. I can maybe project where the franchise is going to be five years from now, but to project where I’m going to be at that point in time in the franchise I think is a long ways off, but I do look forward to these next few years.