PITTSBURGH – Tasked two summers ago with rebooting a franchise whose window for success around stars Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin appeared to be closing, Jim Rutherford didn't tinker. He gutted.
The man they call "Trader Jim" spent the better part of the next 18 months making over the Pittsburgh Penguins on the fly. It started almost immediately after he took over as general manager in June, 2014. The early returns were hardly promising. Marred by injuries and dispassionate play under then-head coach Mike Johnston, the Penguins fell to the New York Rangers in five listless games last spring, leading to concerns the man who built a Stanley Cup winner in NASCAR country in Carolina a decade ago had lost his touch.
Now, the 67-year-old has his fingerprints all over a team that heads into Game 5 of the Stanley Cup Final on Thursday night up 3-1 over the San Jose Sharks.
Asked recently about the heat he took during the transition, Rutherford deadpanned, "I did?"
Yeah. Kinda. Not that it stopped Rutherford from continuing his search for the right pieces to put around his high-profile core, a process that included admitting to a few mistakes of his own along the way.
Only a small handful of familiar faces remain from the roster Rutherford inherited from Ray Shero. The departed have been replaced almost universally by quicker, more versatile players who — along with a needed jolt of intensity from new coach Mike Sullivan — have the Penguins on the brink of a fourth title.
"I think what Jim has done has given us an identity," backup goaltender Jeff Zatkoff said.
One that will have three shots over the next week to add another adjective: champion. A quick look at Rutherford's most significant moves during an overhaul that's made the former goaltender a finalist for the NHL General Manager of the Year and propped open that window that no longer appears on the verge of slamming shut.
THE DATE: June 27, 2014
THE DEAL: Sending forward James Neal to Nashville in exchange for forward Patric Hornqvist and Nick Spaling.
THE FALLOUT: Rutherford wasted little time getting to work, sending the productive but volatile Neal to the Predators. While Spaling's tenure didn't last long — he's actually playing for the Sharks during the Cup Final — Hornqvist has gelled nicely with Crosby. Hornqvist's ability to get to the net frees up space for Crosby, and his eight playoff goals this postseason include an overtime winner against Washington and a hat trick in the first round against the Rangers.
THE DATE: July 1, 2015.
THE DEAL: Acquiring Phil Kessel from Toronto in a trade that included six players and a couple of draft picks.
THE FALLOUT: Pittsburgh needed depth — badly — to help take some of the scoring burden off Crosby and Malkin. Enter Kessel, who spent six seasons in Toronto scoring goals and becoming a three-time All-Star while also becoming an unwitting avatar for a fan base frustrated by the team's inability to generate any momentum in the postseason. Put together with Carl Hagelin and Nick Bonino (like Kessel, brought in by trades) as part of the "HBK" line in March, Kessel has been the Penguins' most consistent player. His 21 points through 22 playoff games have him as one of the favorites to earn the Conn Smythe Trophy given to the playoff MVP.
THE DATE: Dec. 12, 2015
THE DEAL: Firing Johnston and promoting Sullivan to head coach
THE FALLOUT: Johnston wasn't Rutherford's first choice to replace Dan Bylsma, and the professorial Johnston's brief tenure was marked by a sometimes nonchalant style that hardly seemed to take advantage of Crosby, Malkin and Kris Letang's unique talents. Sullivan took over with the Penguins on the fringe of the playoff picture and issued a challenge to the entire roster to hold itself accountable while evolving as a group. After a sluggish start, Pittsburgh took off around Jan. 1 and tore through the final weeks of the regular season by forcing opponents to play 200 feet.
THE DATE: Dec. 14, 2015
THE DEAL: Sending defenseman Rob Scuderi to Chicago for Trevor Daley
THE FALLOUT: Scuderi, who helped the Penguins to a Cup in 2009, was brought back in 2013 to provide guidance and grit at the blue line. By last fall, Scuderi's best days were firmly in the rearview mirror. Rutherford found an unlikely partner in Chicago, who sent the underperforming Daley to Pittsburgh so long as the Penguins held on to a portion of Scuderi's contract. The deal went down as the Penguins were finishing a dismal 5-1 loss to Washington in Sullivan's coaching debut. Daley immediately upgraded Pittsburgh's skill at the blue line and was playing perhaps the best hockey of his career before an ankle injury suffered in Game 4 of the Eastern Conference finals.
THE DATE: July 1, 2015 & March 14, 2016
THE DEAL(S): Signing Conor Sheary, Tom Kuhnhackl and Bryan Rust to two-year contracts
THE FALLOUT: On the surface, the respective deals for the three young forwards — all 25 and under — barely caused a ripple when they were announced. Yet, the trio's precocious play has given the Penguins an influx of speed and youth. All three were regulars by March and have been factors through June. Sheary has two goals in the Cup Final, including the overtime winner in Game 2. Rust has more goals in the playoffs (six) than he did during the regular season (five) and Kuhnhackl is an effective penalty killer with plenty of defensive chops.
Rutherford raised eyebrows when he took the job, saying he figured to be around only a few years. He's chucked the timetable for now and perhaps for good.
"I'm not worried about myself," he said. "I've been around a long time. If you want me to leave today, I'll leave."