Rossi: Rutherford falling apart, too

Rob Rossi
| Monday, April 20, 2015, 11:39 p.m.

Crisis is supposed to reveal true character, right?

General manager Jim Rutherford lost his cool after the Penguins' 2-1 loss to the New York Rangers on Monday night to fall within two defeats of a first-round elimination in the Stanley Cup playoffs.

After exiting a media elevator and while walking with other reporters to the Penguins' dressing room, Rutherford addressed this columnist, a frequent critic since his hiring last June, in an obscenity-laced diatribe.

“Thanks for your support,” Rutherford said repeatedly.

“You're a (expletive) jerk,” Rutherford said repeatedly.

Rutherford followed the jerk comment with a suggestion to “go sell ice cream now,” then a challenge to look him in the eye, which I did while explaining my role as Trib Total Media's lead sports columnist.

My role is to provide opinion.

“Well, your opinion is (expletive),” Rutherford said.

As (expletive) as my opinion might be, it remains that Rutherford has botched an attempted retooling of the Penguins. If this unfortunate incident is any indication, he lacks the poise necessary to move that project foward.

Mario Lemieux and Ron Burkle, the Penguins' majority co-owners who attended Game 3 at Consol Energy Center, should make the call to hand over Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin and Marc-Andre Fleury to a general manager who cares less about what a columnist writes and more about the salary cap.

And Rutherford either doesn't care about or can't figure out that salary cap.

That's the only sense I can make of his Penguins having to play five of their final seven regular-season games with only five defensemen. Too close to the cap after the NHL trade deadline, the Penguins could not sustain injuries to defensemen Kris Letang and Christian Ehrhoff.

Rutherford inherited Letang and his $7.25 million cap hit.

But he added Ehrhoff, at a cost of $4 million against the cap, even though the last thing the Penguins needed last offseason was another veteran defenseman. Ray Shero, Rutherford's predecessor, had spent a majority of his draft picks stocking the Penguins' farm system with defensemen.

So, yeah, Rutherford's signing of Ehrhoff only enhanced my opinion that he was not qualified to improve the Penguins, who had stagnated under Shero's leadership after reaching the Cup Final in 2008, then winning the Cup in '09.

The day Rutherford was announced as general manager, I asked him about his final five years as GM with Carolina. In those years, Carolina never reached the playoffs.

Since the NHL instituted a salary cap for the 2005-06 season, only three of Rutherford's teams have qualified for the playoffs. The Hurricanes won the Cup in 2006 and lost to the Penguins in the '09 Eastern final.

Nine of the Penguins who dressed against the Rangers in Game 3, including backup goalie Thomas Greiss, were brought to the organization by Rutherford. He has brazenly continued Shero's penchant for trading draft picks for players to help the Penguins win now.

But the Penguins aren't winning now.

A top-four Eastern seed in each of the previous seven years, they did not qualify for the playoffs until the final night of the regular season and are in the postseason as the No. 8 seed.

A franchise branded for its offensive prowess, co-owned by the team's all-time leading scorer in Lemieux and employing two former two-time scoring champions in Crosby and Malkin, the Penguins finished 19th in goals during the regular season.

They have scored only two goals in their two losses to the Rangers during this series, which they likely would trail, 0-3, if not for Crosby's two-goal surge in a 4-3 win in Game 2 on Saturday night.

Have injuries derailed Rutherford's best-laid plans?

Absolutely.

But the Penguins' 343 man-games lost in the regular season were considerably fewer than the league-leading 529 in the last year of Shero's tenure.

Shero's final team won its division, albeit against weaker competition, and came within a win of returning to the Eastern final.

Under Rutherford, the Penguins have regressed.

They need a leader.

And on Monday night, Rutherford's behavior was far short of that.

Rob Rossi is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. Reach him at rrossi@tribweb.com or via Twitter @RobRossi_Trib.

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