Of all the signings on Day 1 of the NHL’s annual free agency period, the biggest may be someone who will not take one step onto the ice for the 2016-17 season.
“We’re here to talk about the most important signing on signing day,” said Pens president/CEO David Morehouse.
That signing was a contract extension for general manager Jim Rutherford that will keep him running the team through the 2018-19 season.
“We’re very fortunate to have signed a new extension with Jim Rutherford,” said Morehouse, who hired Rutherford in the summer of 2014. “I said this two years ago when we signed him the first time. We’re very fortunate that he’s even interested in coming to Pittsburgh. He’s exactly the kind of person that we need here with the Pittsburgh Penguins and he proved it in two years.”
For his part, there is nowhere Rutherford would rather be.
“I’m with the best organization in the league,” Rutherford said. "We have great ownership with Mario (Lemieux) and Ron (Burkle). They give us great leadership all the time and provide the resources that we need to be successful. It’s been a good working relationship with David and I have a great hockey operations department right now, and a very good team. So I feel pretty good about staying on.”
Rutherford orchestrated a roster overhaul during his first two years on the job that culminated in the franchise winning its fourth-ever Stanley Cup championship three weeks ago. For his efforts Rutherford was named NHL General Manager of the Year.
But the team’s recent success didn’t factor into the Pens’ decision to keep Rutherford. In fact, the two sides began working on an extension while the Pens weren’t even in a playoff position.
“In December David and I were starting to talk a little bit about (the deal),” Rutherford said. “Obviously when you win you feel a lot better about it. But I think at one point during the season, maybe in December, I’d already decided I was going to stay longer.”
Rutherford, the only general manager in the modern NHL area to steer two teams to a Stanley Cup championship coupled with his title in 2006 with Carolina, is also one of five active GMs with multiple Cup championships.
Rutherford executed many roster changes that helped transform the team into a speedy, talented champion, including the acquisitions of Phil Kessel, Patric Hornqvist, Trevor Daley, Carl Hagelin and Justin Schultz.
But Rutherford’s biggest acquisition came behind the bench with his promotion of Wilkes-Barre/Scranton head coach Mike Sullivan to head coach in Pittsburgh.
“Everybody knows what an incredible job he did and what a terrific coach he is,” Rutherford said. “But I got to know firsthand what a terrific guy he is and I just really like him a lot.”
A lot has changed for Rutherford, who figured that he may never be a GM in the league again after stepping down in Carolina. But the Pens came calling in the summer of 2014 and the rest is history.
It took Rutherford a year to really grasp things in Pittsburgh. After a first-year learning curve, he took full control in his second year.
“When you go someplace new you have to learn how things work,” Rutherford said. “After my first year here I had a very good handle on how everybody works and it makes it a lot easier.”
Just two years ago, Rutherford was contemplating retirement. Now, he’s contemplating how to defend a Stanley Cup championship.
“When I stepped down in Carolina I thought that was it,” he said. “Then I came here for a couple of years and now it’s a few more. For a lot of years people have asked me how long I’m going to do this and I’ve outlasted most of them.”
The Pens are hoping he outlasts many more.
“We tried to get him to sign a 15-year, cap-friendly front-loaded deal, but he wasn’t interested,” joked Morehouse. “Everything Jim said that he was going to do from the first interview when we talked to him he’s accomplished. He’s an extraordinary individual, a good friend, an outstanding human being, and we’re lucky to have him.”