The Tampa Bay Lightning are a fast team. But even they can’t keep pace with the Penguins.
That was evident in Pittsburgh’s 4-2 victory in Game 3 of the Eastern Conference Final at Amalie Arena Wednesday night that gave the Pens a 2-1 series advantage.
The injection of speed was a yearlong project of general manager Jim Rutherford, who noted early on that his team lacked swiftness.
“Coming out of training camp, we felt that we needed to upgrade our speed,” he said. “Of course, that takes awhile. It’s not easy to find those guys. It started with (Trevor) Daley and then (Carl) Hagelin and then the group of young guys came up and added some speed to us also.”
Eight months after training camp Rutherford’s calculated maneuverings have the Pens on the precipice of returning to the Stanley Cup Final for the first time since winning the title in 2009.
And his brethren have taken notice.
Rutherford was named one of three finalists for the NHL General Manager of the Year Award along with Washington’s Brian MacLellan and Dallas’ Jim Nill. The award – which will be given out at the NHL Award Show on June 22 at the Hard Rock Casino in Las Vegas – is determined by a vote of the NHL’s 30 general managers, a panel of NHL executives, print and broadcast media.
“That’s nice. I appreciate that,” Rutherford said of the nomination. “I appreciate my GM friends that voted for me. But to me, that’s just a side thing right now. We have other work to do. We have another goal and that’s the most important thing.”
Make no mistake, this is Jim Rutherford’s team.
It’s taken two years and complete upheaval in many areas, but the Pens general manager has put his fingerprints all over the current lineup, from the coaching staff on down.
Of the 23 players on the Pens’ roster, 10 were acquired by Rutherford, including four of the team’s top-six postseason scoring leaders in Phil Kessel, Nick Bonino, Patric Hornqvist and Carl Hagelin.
Rutherford has also added key pieces in Matt Cullen, Eric Fehr, Trevor Daley, Justin Schultz, Ian Cole and Ben Lovejoy. All have contributed in various ways to the Pens’ success.
Not to mention Rutherford pulling the trigger on a coaching change and promoting Wilkes-Barre/Scranton head coach Mike Sullivan to Pittsburgh as the NHL team’s new bench boss in December.
“For the most part, you feel that the moves made sense,” Rutherford said. “But do they all come together at the same time at the right time of the year? Right now they are.”
Although a majority of changes have taken place this season, the team’s current playoff run is the culmination of two years worth of work.
Rutherford was hired in the summer of 2014 with the job of returning the Pens to hockey greatness. During his first season in 2014-15, the Pens struggled down the stretch of the regular season and needed a win in the final game to net a berth in the Stanley Cup playoffs – only to be dismissed by the New York Rangers in five games.
“I’m not so sure last year was so bad as whoever thought it was because we had 92 points with about 10 games left in the season,” Rutherford said. “We already had Olli Maatta out (for the season with a shoulder injury) and then (Kris) Letang went down (with a concussion) and that kind of closed the door on where that season was ending.”
Following a sluggish start to the 2015-16 season, one that saw the Pens slide as low as 12th place in the Eastern Conference, criticism of Rutherford’s job was airing in some media circles.
“I don’t follow that stuff,” Rutherford said.
But the bold move to promote Sullivan coupled with the acquisitions of Kessel, Daley, Hagelin, Schultz and the promotion of youth from within no only turned around their fortunes, but has them on the cusp of competing for a championship.
But Rutherford isn’t taking any pleasure in proving his critics wrong. After all, he feels he hasn’t achieved anything. Yet.
“I don’t take any personal satisfaction,” Rutherford said. “This is a team thing. We have a good group of players. We have a good coaching staff. We have great ownership.
“I don’t take any satisfaction because we haven’t got to where we want to at this point.”