Rutherford deserves a lot of credit for what he did to bring Carolina to two Stanley Cup Finals in 2002 and 2006 and to an Eastern Conference Final in 2009.
However, it could be argued that he will ultimately be remembered in Carolina not for those successful years, but for the fact that largely through his own doing, they were the exception and not the rule.
Rutherford recently joined The David Glenn Show on 99.9 FM The Fan to discuss his Pittsburgh Penguins team that recently claimed their second consecutive Stanley Cup. He also shared a retrospective thought on his tenure with the Hurricanes, which, if you haven’t seen by now, you can read below:
Rutherford: With the resources we had in Carolina, some years we missed the playoffs were some of my best management years, I believe.— David Glenn Show (@DavidGlennShow) June 27, 2017
That’s a pretty brazen thing to say on the airwaves of a city whose lone professional sports team for which there’s an argument that you ran into the ground. Honestly, it reads like a pretty serious insult to the intelligence of the fan base.
From 2009 to 2014, Rutherford steered Carolina’s ship through five consecutive seasons in which they missed the playoffs. Assuming that those years are the ones to which Rutherford was referring in the quote above, let’s quickly summarize what he did in each of those years and see if we can parse exactly what it is that he meant.
Coming off the team’s berth in the Eastern Conference Finals the year prior, Rutherford had some money to spend in free agency to try to add pieces that would get the team over the top.
Instead, he brought in Stephane Yelle, Tom Kostopoulos, and Andrew Alberts. Only Kostopoulos finished the season with the team.
Part of what made the 08-09 team successful was its offensive-oriented defensive unit that moved the puck well. With Joni Pitkanen, Joe Corvo, Frank Kaberle, Anton Babchuk, and Dennis Seidenberg each playing important roles throughout the season, that team got the puck up the ice well and had a defensive unit that could put up points.
Then, Rutherford let Seidenberg walk in free agency, let Babchuk walk to the KHL, and bought out Kaberle. He replaced them by bringing in Alberts, signing Aaron Ward in unrestricted free agency, and adding Jay Harrison.
Any lack of resources wasn’t the problem for the disappointment that was the 09-10 Hurricanes, it was the poor decisions Rutherford made himself that dismantled a defense that was an under-appreciated part of a successful team.
This year was a bit better for Rutherford, as it still stands as the closest the Hurricanes have come to making the playoffs since 2009.
The primary reason that the team improved was that they struck gold when they drafted Jeff Skinner with the 7th overall pick in the 2010 entry draft. Skinner shocked most in the organization by not only being NHL-ready right away, but also by immediately stepping into an NHL lineup as a 30-goal scorer.
I’m not going to hold Rutherford particularly responsible for the poor drafting that plagued the Hurricanes prior to 2010 (the scouting department was largely responsible for that), but for the same reasons, I also don’t think he deserves a whole lot of credit for the turnaround that we’ve seen in that department.
The addition of Cory Stillman to improve the forward group at the trade deadline was representative of the problem that Rutherford had with a nostalgia-driven loyalty to players who had done will for him in the past, but in this particular case it worked out. Stillman reunited with Eric Staal and Erik Cole and filled what was a gaping hole in the top six.
Still, this team could have been a good one if Rutherford had perhaps taken them a bit more seriously heading in. Cam Ward was at the top of his game at this point, and the team had a strong top six forward group. This team was probably a tweak in the bottom six and one defensive upgrade away from having been a threat to make some noise in the playoffs. They never got the right tweaks, and thus they were doomed to carry out one of the more heartbreaking moments in recent Hurricanes memory when they crashed and burned in a win-and-in game #82 at home against a Tampa Bay team with nothing to play for.
Here’s where things started to get pretty ugly. Rutherford’s big offseason acquisition this year was to bring in Tomas Kaberle to a three-year deal with an AAV north of $4 million. Kaberle’s stint in Carolina was a disaster so bad that many considered the Hurricanes lucky that they were able to get the expiring contract of Jaroslav Spacek from Montreal in a trade for him.
He also brought in Alexei Ponikarovsky to get a shot as a more permanent solution to the gap on Eric Staal’s wing. Erik Cole departed to Montreal as a free agent, which left both of those slots open with Stillman’s departure.
Rutherford also brought in winger Anthony Stewart. The two didn’t live up to their expectations, combining for just 35 points on the season. However, Ponikarovsky was dealt to the Devils for the pick that ended up becoming Jaccob Slavin, so it wasn’t a total loss of a situation.
Rutherford’s inability to replace Cole’s production combined with his huge whiff on the Kaberle signing doomed this team from the start.
At the deadline, Rutherford had the option to move Ruutu and Tim Gleason to contending teams for potentially huge returns, as both players were highly sought-after commodities.
Instead, Rutherford held on to them, the team missed the playoffs, and Rutherford signed each of them to four-year contracts at roughly market value set to expire after the 2015-2016 season. Neither player made it through two of those four years with the Hurricanes, and both are out of the league now. Oops.
This was the year in which Rutherford made his biggest moves to upgrade the team. He dealt Brandon Sutter, Brian Dumoulin, and the 2012 1st to Pittsburgh for Jordan Staal.
He then signed Alex Semin to a one-year, $7 million contract. With a top six forward group of the Staals, Semin, Skinner, Tuomo Ruutu, Jiri Tlusty and Jussi Jokinen, the Hurricanes figured to have one of the more formidable top six units in the league.
However, with all that money tied up to the forwards and with $6.3 million committed to Cam Ward in net, the defense suffered. That problem was only exacerbated when the team’s #1 defenseman, Joni Pitkanen, suffered a career ending injury during the season. Following that, the team regularly iced a defensive unit consisting of Jay Harrison, Bobby Sanguinetti, Brett Bellemore, and Michal Jordan.
Further, which so much money tied up on the top-six forward unit, the bottom six was often a mish-mash of waiver claims and AHL caliber players. Led by a huge season from the first line of Tlusty, Eric Staal, and Semin, the Hurricanes led the division through the first month of the season before their lack of depth all throughout the roster did them in. They finished with the fifth-worst record in the league.
This was also the season in which Jokinen’s value cratered, and instead of holding on to him long enough to let him bounce back (which he eventually did) Rutherford shipped him to Pittsburgh for literally nothing. The Juice is still a useful, productive player for the Panthers.
This season was the straw that broke the camel’s back with Rutherford’s term in Carolina. Rutherford’s hand-picked head coach, Kirk Muller, led a team that had huge struggles both systemically and in terms of personnel.
Rutherford’s roster fixes for this season included bringing in Ron Hainsey (who worked out to a reasonable degree), Mike Komisarek (who did not) to fix the defense. At forward, Rutherford continued his trend of putting together pretty abysmal fourth lines, as he brought in Manny Malhotra, who was a nice story at the time but not a particularly useful player, and Radek Dvorak to lead the unit.
It wasn’t all bad from Rutherford this year, though. The trade of Jamie McBain and a second rounder for Andrej Sekera worked out wonderfully, and Nathan Gerbe was an alright depth addition. He also worked his way out of the Ruutu and Gleason deals that loomed large over the team, sending Gleason to Toronto for a still-useful John-Michael Liles
Anton Khudobin was a solid find in the free agent market as well, but after flirting with a playoff spot into January, the ‘Canes were once again done in by their lack of scoring depth and bottom pairing defensive talent. The fact that Jay Harrison, Brett Bellemore, Mike Komisarek, and Tim Gleason all spent considerable time on this roster was not reflective of strong team-building at all.
All this being said, I’m not exactly sure what was behind Rutherford’s compulsion to defend the latter years of his tenure in his appearance on The David Glenn Show.
He has his two Cups with the Penguins, and the Hurricanes are in a much, much better spot now than they were when he departed. The mutual parting of ways seems to have worked out for both parties.
The overarching theme that runs through these five seasons is the complete and total lack of a sense of direction to Rutherford’s team building approach. He made moves suggestive of a win-now strategy with a core group wasn’t capable of winning now.
A lot of Rutherford’s best moves in this era (trading Kaberle, Ruutu, Gleason) were simply undoing the catastrophic decisions he’d made previously, and that’s never a good thing coming out of a general manager.
That hasn’t been the case under Ron Francis. Whether or not you’re thrilled about that direction at this moment, he has brought a level of planning to the Hurricanes that Rutherford simply hadn’t after the playoff runs.