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Tim Benz

Tim Benz: Penguins need bounce-back season from GM Jim Rutherford, too

| Thursday, May 10, 2018, 7:34 p.m.
Penguins general manager Jim Rutherford speaks during media day for the 2017 Stanley Cup Final Sunday, May 28, 2017, at PPG Paints Arena.
Christopher Horner | Tribune-Review
Penguins general manager Jim Rutherford speaks during media day for the 2017 Stanley Cup Final Sunday, May 28, 2017, at PPG Paints Arena.

Everything King Midas touched turned to gold.

Every move Jim Rutherford touched turned to silver. Two years in a row.

Many moves he made this year turned to dust.

Not all of it was his fault. But if the Penguins general manager is really talking about making significant changes for next year, they need to pay off far better than his attempts did for 2018.

A weird dynamic has occurred in Pittsburgh while talking about the Penguins since they lost to Washington. A certain section of the fan base seems to find any criticism of the collective team — or any individual contributor to it — to somehow be a big-picture indictment.

I'm getting the sense that some Penguins fans and media members deem that to be a sign of disrespect toward the overall accomplishment of the 2016 and 2017 clubs.

That's a gross misunderstanding of what's really happening. And Rutherford should be part of these discussions with the same deference given to his successful track record.

No fan should feel guilty about asking: “What could the organization have done better? And how can it improve in 2019?”

Clearly, Rutherford himself is already thinking that way.

“I will make some changes,” said Rutherford this week. “We have the pieces in place that are players that other teams are going to want.”

The question is: How much roster upheaval does Rutherford really want to create?

“I think it's fair to say that this will be a different-looking team by the time we open next season. It doesn't mean that there will be drastic changes and a lot of changes. But there will be changes in the areas that are necessary.”

If that's the case, Rutherford better find that pixie dust he had sprinkled the previous two years. Because some of Rutherford's moves turned out poorly this year.

Many will point to the Derick Brassard trade. I don't. I couldn't have been more in favor of that deal. So I'm not going to be a hypocrite about it now.

That one, just didn't work. The logic was sound. It just didn't manifest positively when Brassard finally came here. Maybe it'll pay off better next season.

If that deal is to be faulted, it's because there wasn't a corresponding replacement for Ian Cole, who had to be moved to make the deal occur.

I'm not one of those who operates through revisionist history or hypothetical assumptions. I'm not going to tell you that Cole would've been the difference in beating the Capitals, especially because offensive finishing ability is what really crushed the Penguins the last four-plus periods of that series.

A substitute for Cole's shot blocking and defensive acumen may have helped earlier in the series, though. Rutherford couldn't find that blue-line chip as he did with Ron Hainsey, Trevor Daley and Justin Schultz in recent seasons.

Nabbing Jamie Oleksiak was a nice ploy by Rutherford. But that was earlier in the year, and he had to be elevated to more of a fourth or fifth defenseman at times as opposed to a sixth or seventh.

“We continued to try to make deals right up to the deadline,” Rutherford said Wednesday. “With the cap it's difficult to do some of the things you want to do.”

Criticism of Rutherford can also be focused on last offseason. And for many observers, it's not second-guessing because concerns were raised at the time.

Like some in the Penguins' fan base, I thought Matt Hunwick was a slightly lower-paid, significantly less-stout version of Hainsey. I never saw the need for an enforcer in Ryan Reaves. Nor did I find it important to get Antti Niemi when Tristan Jarry appeared to be on an upward development track.

Those three players failed to touch the ice in a Penguins uniform in the playoffs. Reaves was gone at the deadline. Niemi was booted after three appearances.

Riley Sheahan proved to be a positive acquisition. But then his inability to finish opportunities that we saw in Detroit came back in the playoffs, where he had just one goal in the 12 postseason games.

None of this is to say Rutherford has “lost his fastball,” or “the game has passed him by.” As he joked with media members Wednesday, even at 69 years of age, he may be running the team longer than any of us will be covering it.

The sooner he does retire is just the sooner he starts his clock toward the Hall of Fame as a GM.

Or at least that should be the case.

He just didn't have a good year. That's all. It's certainly allowed. But if changes are coming, and players will be dealt as Rutherford intimated, and cap room needs to created and refilled, then Rutherford needs to get back on the positive track in terms of team building for 2018-'19.

Tim Benz is a Tribune-Review staff writer. Reach him at or via Twitter @TimBenzPGH.

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