The Pittsburgh Penguins concluded their three-week search to replace fired general manager Ray Shero Friday, and the news that started trickling out a few hours before the official announcement caught most observers off guard.
A few names had leaked throughout the search process, which saw the Penguins start with a list of 30 candidates, speak with 22 of them, bring nine to Pittsburgh for interviews and invite four back as finalists. Most visible among them was NBC television analyst Pierre McGuire, whose candidacy – and candor in radio interviews about it – was highly polarizing to the fan base.
The name of 65-year-old Jim Rutherford, former Carolina Hurricanes GM, was never mentioned publicly, and seemed a strange choice to lead the Penguins into the next chapter of their franchise history.
But the rest of the announcement made sense of the selection, as former assistant GM Jason Botterill, 38, was promoted to Associate GM, while player development coach Bill Guerin, 43, and former Shero assistant Tom Fitzgerald, 45, were promoted to Assistant GMs. Botterill, who served as interim GM since Shero’s departure, was a candidate for the position, while Fitzgerald is also believed to have interviewed.
In promoting Botterill, a salary-cap specialist who is widely regarded as a soon-to-be NHL general manager, the Penguins likely felt he wasn’t yet ready to assume the lead role but wanted to keep him in the organization with the probability of being Rutherford’s eventual successor.
“I feel we have two or three guys here that are very close to becoming general managers,” Rutherford said. “What I will do is give them big roles and a lot to say, and a lot of input in my final decisions. But, at the same time, I know that I’m mentoring them.
“I would suppose that this term for me is probably two or three years here, and it’s going to be up to the ownership as to who replaces me. But, certainly, I will get to know these guys better and I will recommend what goes on in the future. Especially Jason. He’s been here for a long time; he’s a very bright guy. He knows the game. I know that he’s getting very close.”
Rutherford specifically defined Guerin’s role as being hands-on with the players. “It wasn’t long ago since Billy was a player; he understands what makes these players tick and he’s going to be my day-to-day guy that really communicates with [them] and is around a lot more in the room to understand if we have an issue or if everything is going fine. Because, when there’s issues, I like to get on top of it and deal directly with it myself.”
As Rutherford mentors the next Penguins GM – a role he also performed in Carolina, where former Penguin Ron Francis recently assumed GM duties – he’ll work to restructure an organization he believes is close to getting back to winning.
“Five weeks ago, I decided to step down with the Hurricanes. I did both jobs [president and GM] and it really wore on me. And, when I stepped down … [I kept] an open mind that, if somebody called me, I would consider going somewhere if I felt I had a chance to win a championship.
“I have one Stanley Cup, I have two Eastern Conference trophies, but there’s no feeling, as everyone in here knows, like winning the ultimate prize. I believe we can do it here. And my job now is to come in and change some of those things that we need to strengthen in order to get to the end.”
Several of the things Rutherford cited as needing to change echoed what Penguins fans – and, more importantly, ownership – had likely been hoping to hear from their next GM: the team needs a head coach more capable of making adjustments, the organization needs to come up to speed on analytics, and the team would benefit from more vocal leadership.
Head coaching change
Upon his hiring, Rutherford immediately dismissed Dan Bylsma of his head coaching duties, in what seemed like a formality since Shero’s firing three weeks ago. Bylsma’s assistants – Jacques Martin, Todd Reirden, Tony Granato and goalie coach Mike Bales – were not dismissed but have been given permission to pursue other opportunities.
“I took the information from the people that were here; I didn’t have several meetings with Dan to get to know him and evaluate him or take his side of the story,” Rutherford said. “We agreed that making a change was the right thing to do.
“I have a short list of coaches in mind. The coach is going to have to adjust to the style of players we have because, with the talent level of the Penguins, the Penguins can play however we want – but, with the teams we have to compete with, we are going to have to make the proper adjustments during the game, the regular season or a playoff series.
“Obviously the Penguins can score, and score in bunches. But, looking at the Penguins – obviously from a distance, because that’s where I was – I don’t think they can make the proper adjustments against certain teams, and that will be a key factor in what I will be looking for in a head coach. And then the chemistry is going to be important. If the head coach is a certain way, we may need an X and O’s guy as a head coach and a motivator as an assistant coach, or vice versa. But we have to get a good mix of guys.”
Rutherford said he would be adding a specialized analytics position to the organization within the next few weeks.
“I don’t think we’re up to speed here, and this is something I’ve gotten used to over the last few years. The analytics are very interesting if you do it properly. It’s not like baseball, [which] is an individual sport and you can either hit the ball or you can’t, or you can pitch the ball a certain way or you can’t. Hockey is a team sport. When you’re using those analytics, there are things that analytics are going to point out to you that your hockey people don’t see.
“So I take those points, whether it’s good or bad with a player, and then I go back and start questioning the hockey people – are we not seeing this? The analytics aren’t always right, and we’re not always right. It’s a great sounding board, really. Being a guy that’s been around as long as I have, some people are probably surprised that I use analytics. But I’ve used them for a few years now, and I can tell you that it really makes a difference.”
Grit and character
Asked specifically about the mandate from owners Mario Lemieux and Ron Burkle to improve the Penguins’ grit and character, Rutherford said his outsider’s perspective was that the team could use more vocal leadership – something he could consider addressing via trades or the upcoming free agency period, which he cautioned “may not be as exciting” this year as the Penguins are up against the salary cap, “but we’re still going to look to see if there’s ways to make some changes on the team.”
“I see the top-six guys as very talented players but, from a character point of view or leadership point of view … looking at it from the outside, I suspect we have good character in that room, but it’s quiet. It’s a quiet approach where you don’t have one or two guys that can stand up in the room and say, you know, this is what’s really going on. From a character point of view, I don’t think there’s an issue but, to have somebody or a couple of guys that are a little more vocal, I suspect that’s probably needed.”
Before free agency, however, Rutherford will turn his attention to preparing for the NHL Entry Draft, set for three weeks from his hire date, and hiring a head coach. Later Friday, in an interview with local radio station 93.7 The Fan, he said he plans to begin interviewing coaching candidates Monday, June 16, due to travel and GM meetings over the coming week.