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Jim Rutherford’s Past Successes Open Door To Current Criticism

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It is human nature to look for a scapegoat when things go wrong. You need look no further than politics.

Americans voted for change last November by electing Barack Obama and many other Democrats into office, only to reverse course earlier this month and insert many GOP candidates into public office.

When it comes to hockey, a puzzling fall to last place in the NHL leads to a lot of finger-pointing. Ask the Carolina Hurricanes.

Spotty goaltending, lack of scoring, defensive miscues, coaching errors, penalties and injuries have all contributed to Carolina’s downward spiral into the abyss of the league standings. But even when the problems are so numerous and widespread, usually the spotlight of blame is shone on a select few. 

Prior to injuries, franchise cornerstones Eric Staal and Cam Ward were both under fire from fans who expected more out of the team’s superstars. Captain Rod Brind’Amour’s struggles have led some to suggest he should hang up his skates or vacate his captaincy. Coach Paul Maurice, who masterfully steered a wayward team to the Eastern Conference Finals last season, has been unable to stop the bleeding in the defensive zone or find ways to help his squad generate offense — they rank dead last in both goals for and goals against.

But the criticism that deserves the most analysis is the suggestion by some that GM Jim Rutherford is not only to blame for the incredibly disappointing season, but should pay for his mistakes with his job. 

Rutherford’s success as a GM is documented: he is one of seven active GMs to have won a Stanley Cup, and one of just six to have made more than one trip to the Finals. (Brian Burke, the general manager of the Toronto Maple Leafs, has done it once, winning a Stanley Cup in 2007 with the Anaheim Ducks)

Furthermore, two of the aforementioned six are a decade or two removed from making a run to the final two (Glen Sather, the Rangers GM, last did so in 1988 when his Oilers dynasty ended with the last of four Stanley Cups; Montreal GM Bob Gainey did his damage with the Minnesota North Stars/Dallas Stars, sandwiching losses in the Finals in 1991 and 2000 around a win in 1999).

That leaves a pretty exclusive club: Lou Lamoriello (New Jersey) and Ken Holland (Detroit) — arguably the top executives in the game — have each won three Stanley Cups and lost in one finals as general manager of their clubs, relative newcomer Ray Shero has guided the Penguins to a final in 2008-09 and a title last season, and Rutherford, who won the Cup in 2006 after losing to the Red Wings in 2002.

While Shero’s roster tweaking certainly helped lead Pittsburgh to back-to-back trips to the finals, he inherited a roster chock full of talent (Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin and Marc-Andre Fleury were all in place when Shero took over), and he has yet been challenged with rebuilding a team.

On the flip side, Rutherford — few people ever, for that matter — simply does not compare with Lamoriello and Holland. The latter two have managed to guide their teams to playoff after playoff, be it through a spending free-for-all era or the more recent salary cap world. Since coming to Raleigh, the Hurricanes have been postseason outsiders more times (six) than participators (five), with another year without playoffs seeming more likely by the day.

It is fair to ask: Would you rather have a perennial contender that falls short, like the Sharks, Flyers or Flames, or a team like Carolina that has had a few dramatic runs toward glory coupled with some numbingly poor seasons? And are either — the good or the bad — mainly due to Rutherford’s performance? 

The Hockey News’ Adam Proteau think Rutherford’s successes outweigh the failures, especially in a parity-filled NHL.

"I think the helter-skelter play you've seen season-to-season from the Canes the last little while is more of an indication of how thin the line really is today between winning and losing in the NHL," Proteau said. "The Flyers, for instance, also were able to turn around a cruddy season just a year later. And Anaheim right now looks as if they'll be in the lottery race this year, so soon after looking so dominant at the end of last season."

But the peaks don't necessarily make the valleys any more bearable.

"I can understand the frustration," said James Mirtle, who covers the Maple Leafs for Toronto’s The Globe & Mail and writes for SB Nation on From The Rink. "That’s what happens with success, right? Look at Colorado."

Proteau agrees that success leads to heightened expectations.

"He has been THN's Executive of the Year twice since I've been at [The Hockey News], and for good reason," Proteau said. "Look at some of the franchises that came both before and after the Canes/Whalers came into being, and you'll see that many of them have (a) no Stanley Cups and (b) no Cup Final appearances. That Jim has a couple to his name (and very nearly another one last season) speaks to a patience and focus that has served his employer well. And doing so on a so-called 'budget team' makes the achievement all the more impressive."

Rutherford’s bargain-bin shopping is a big part of that budgeted success, a tactic that has worked more often than it has not. Also, his unending loyalty to several players and coaches is an admirable trait that has both benefited and hurt the team at times. For example, the return of Erik Cole and Maurice helped spark the team to the conference finals last season, but retaining both for two and three years, respectively, hasn’t yet yielded the same results. There are more: Ron Francis’ return to the franchise — good; Josef Vasicek’s — not so good; Matt Cullen’s return — good; Aaron Ward’s re-acquisition — so far, not good. The list goes on.

Greg Wyshynski, who edits Puck Daddy, thinks Rutherford showed shrewd negotiating skills with free agents this offseason, but overlooked some weaknesses — including re-acquiring Ward to fill the defensive holes left by the departures of Dennis Seidenberg and Anton Babchuk.

"While I was really supportive of the pimp hand last summer in talking down guys like [Chad] LaRose, it's clear that some upgrades  — like on the blue line — probably needed a little more attention than they received," Wyshynski said. "Last year's team was propelled by a number of career years and an amazing execution of the Maurice system. There needed to be a few upgrades to keep things moving forward."

While Proteau believes Rutherford is one of the game’s best, Wyshynski isn’t so sure.

"I think he does a solid job, but the Hurricanes carry a lot of payroll for a team in that market, you know?" Wyshynski said.

Mirtle was also reluctant to group Rutherford among the game’s elite, saying, "I think he's probably in the middle somewhere."

Which raises the question: if we conceded, for a moment, that Rutherford is not among the best GMs in the game, does he bring value beyond what happens on the ice?

"Absolutely," Proteau said. "As one of the longest-tenured GMs in the game, he is widely respected by his peers. As such, he can stress issues that are important not only to the game in a larger sense, but that will affect the success of the Canes in the long run, and he will be listened to in a way that a rookie GM may not."

Mirtle added that Rutherford is one of the more visible GMs, especially for a small market team.

"He has a lot of influence around the league, and I think that’s a good thing," Mirtle said. "He’s on the radio [in Toronto] a lot. I don’t ever hear the other [GMs] from down South: Florida, Atlanta, Phoenix."

The mainstream media often looks to Rutherford for opinions on important league topics, the most recent being the debate on headshots.  

Proteau and The Hockey News are part of that, often seeking out Rutherford’s opinion. A recent example is the magazine’s Nov. 16 cover story titled "The Defensemen Issue." Rutherford was one of six panelists — along with Sharks GM Doug Wilson, Red Wings assistant GM Jim Nill, former GMs Neil Smith and Craig Button, and Mark Seidel, Central Scouting's chief scout — asked to name the NHL's best defensemen in a variety of categories. Proteau said Rutherford’s experience — coupled with accessibility — make him a valuable source.

"Age and experience definitely is a factor in our relationship with Jim," Proteau said. "He knows the financial realities of the business, and he has served on enough committees and boards over the years that he is up to speed on virtually every issue of prominence. But it's also about him making himself available to reporters, and conveying ideas and concepts in a manner that all fans can understand. Jim is quite adept at both those things."

But does experience and visibility translate to worth? 

"He clearly has a voice on the league level and the respect of his peers," Wyshynski said. "How does that translate to value? I'm not sure. He's not exactly hurting for trading partners, for whatever that's worth. In the end, he's the team president for Carolina, which isn't exactly an Original Six franchise. It reminds me of my time covering high school sports: The massive secondary schools in the suburbs would always have more influences than the rural schools. It's just how it works."

The publicity and attention that Rutherford brings to to the franchise — and done without the sometimes overwhelming bravado of Burke — is surely more than most, if not all, of the Sun Belt teams. But more importantly, Rutherford’s teams have proven that, at times, they can be among the league’s elite. But can the long-time GM — facing a future with young players instead of the veterans he employed coming out of the lockout — work his magic again?

"If the team is going to bottom out, is this the guy you want to [rebuild] it?" Mirtle said. "I could see why people would ask that."

Still, there's a reason why Rutherford's name was mentioned in Toronto's GM search last year.

"I don’t think he was one of the first people sought out, but you have to give the guy credit," Mirtle said. "I think the Leafs were looking for a guy that has won a Cup, and he has. … It gives Rutherford something that makes him desirable. And that’s probably why he gets such a long rope."

And in the end that's what it comes down to: Rutherford has found a way to not only win a Stanley Cup, but guide his team to the finals one other time and the conference finals last season. All the publicity in the world can't overshadow wins. 

"I think the best way he gives the Canes value is by the on-ice results, and the fact that a season like their current one can be met with such widespread disdain by their fans is a good indication of what people have come to expect from the franchise," Proteau said. "Contrast that with the likes of the Panthers, Thrashers and Coyotes, and you see why that matters so much."