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GM Rutherford's moves pay off for Penguins

Trades, coaching change have Pittsburgh one step from Stanley Cup

by Tom Gulitti @tomgulittinhl / Staff Writer

Two years ago, Jim Rutherford felt the time was right for him to "take a step back." Now he's got the Pittsburgh Penguins one step away from winning the Stanley Cup.

The San Jose Sharks are their lone remaining obstacle, with the Final set to begin Monday at Consol Energy Center (8 p.m. ET; NBC, CBC, TVA Sports).

Rutherford could not have envisioned this in 2014, when after 20 years of running the Hartford Whalers/Carolina Hurricanes franchise as president and general manager, he decided to hand over the GM job to Ron Francis. The Hurricanes had missed the Stanley Cup Playoffs for five consecutive seasons and Rutherford, then 65, had been telling ownership for a while that being in charge of both the business side and hockey operations was "too much."

"In hindsight, I'm not real sure how I did that," Rutherford told Friday. "Maybe I didn't do a good enough job at it because I was doing both jobs."

Rutherford had a pretty successful run with the Hurricanes, getting them to the Final in 2002 and going back and winning the Cup in 2006. After grooming Francis as his successor, he was content to take on an advisory role as team president and finish out his career with the Hurricanes that way.

"Then, within a couple weeks after that, I got the call from Pittsburgh," Rutherford said.

The Penguins were looking for a new GM after blowing a 3-1 series lead to the New York Rangers in the second round of the playoffs. Rutherford wasn't looking to leave Carolina, but suddenly had an intriguing opportunity in front of him with a team featuring two of the game's biggest stars in Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin.

After meeting with co-owners Mario Lemieux and Ron Burkle and Penguins CEO and president David Morehouse, Rutherford was convinced.

"I don't think I would have taken just any new challenge," Rutherford said. "With the players they already had here and the core players, I felt that this was a place that I had a chance to win again."

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That chance is tantalizingly close to becoming a reality now after the Penguins advanced to the Cup Final for the first time since 2009 by defeating the Tampa Bay Lightning 2-1 in Game 7 of the Eastern Conference Final on Thursday. But Rutherford isn't about to take any bows.

"It means a lot to any organization when you get to the final four or the final two, but that's not the finish line," he said. "We want to get to the final one, just as San Jose does. So I'm really proud of our players. We've played three very good teams to get to this point. Now we're going to play another good one."

The road here has not been smooth. A year ago, the Penguins were eliminated by the Rangers in five games in the first round of the playoffs and there were questions about whether they made the right decision in hiring Rutherford.

Defensemen Kris Letang and Olli Maatta did not play in the series against the Rangers because of injuries, but Rutherford knew the Penguins' problems were deeper than that as he approached the task of retooling the roster last summer.

"As I was watching other teams and saw what we had, there were certainly some things that we hoped we could do and one of those things was to change the character of our team," he said. "Looking at the players we were going to bring in, we wanted real strong character guys and we were able to do that. Then, coming out of camp, we felt that our team looked a little bit slow, and we had to see if we could fix the pace of our team."

The personnel changes Rutherford made have been well-documented. He traded for right wing Phil Kessel and center Nick Bonino last summer, then acquired defenseman Trevor Daley and left wing Carl Hagelin during the season.

Call-ups such as Conor Sheary and Bryan Rust, who scored both goals in the win Thursday, also boosted the team's speed and skill.

"Those changes and those players changed our team considerably during the course of the season," Rutherford said.

But the biggest change came when Rutherford fired coach Mike Johnston on Dec. 12 and replaced him with Mike Sullivan, who was hired last summer to coach the organization's American Hockey League affiliate in Wilkes-Barre/Scranton. At the time of the coaching change, the Penguins were 15-10-3.

"When the coaching change was made and [Sullivan] came in, he made an immediate connection with the players and continued to keep that connection and the players bought into his style of play," Rutherford said. "Our style of play changed. We became more aggressive and quicker, and it worked."

Under Sullivan, the Penguins went 33-16-5 and rolled into the playoffs as the NHL's hottest team. They knocked off the Rangers in five games in the first round and took down the Presidents' Trophy-winning Washington Capitals in six games in the second round.

The Lightning were one victory away from eliminating the Penguins in the conference final before Pittsburgh responded by winning Games 6 and 7.

With the team four wins away from a championship, no one is questioning the decision to hire Rutherford anymore. The move has had a positive impact on him individually as well.

"It really did," Rutherford said. "And part of it was, I got to focus on one thing. I got to just focus on hockey. I didn't have to deal with other things. One of these jobs is hard enough without trying to do two or three other jobs at the same time. It's very, very difficult. It gave me a chance to just focus on what I really love doing and it definitely reinvigorated me."

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