UK Markets close in 7 hrs 57 mins

What in the world is Jim Rutherford doing in Pittsburgh?

Mike Stephens
·NHL analyst
·6-min read
PITTSBURGH, PENNSLYVANIA- OCTOBER 07: General manager Jim Rutherford of the Pittsburgh Penguins sits at the draft table during rounds 2-7 of the 2020 NHL Entry Draft at PPG Paints Arena on October 07, 2020 in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. The 2020 NHL Draft was held virtually due to the ongoing Coronavirus pandemic. (Photo by Ryan Yorgen/NHLI via Getty Images)
Is Jim Rutherford OK? (Photo by Ryan Yorgen/NHLI via Getty Images)

One of the greatest gifts that professional sports can offer is the ability to witness history.

Whether it’s Hank Aaron setting the home run record, Wayne Gretzky passing Gordie Howe in career goals, or Cal Ripken Jr. playing in his 2,632nd consecutive game, the ability to look back on a unique moment in history and say you were there is something magical.

Well, my friends, you better pay attention. Because Jim Rutherford is on an absolute heater right now. And if you can definitively confirm just what on God’s green earth Trader Jim happens to be doing, congratulations — you are the smartest person alive.

First, let’s go over some facts. Is Rutherford desperately stripping his organization of any and all future foundation? Yes. Is he constructing a roster seemingly built to bow out of the 2012 Stanley Cup in five games? Absolutely. And is he talking out both sides of his mouth while doing it? You betcha.

Those are all facts. Point any of that out, though, and the elder statesmen’s biggest supporters will hit you with another one: Jim Rutherford is bulletproof.

The guy’s a Hall of Famer, for Pete’s sake, not to mention a three-time Stanley Cup champion and the only GM in the salary cap era to win two back-to-back.

Following those consecutive Cups in 2016 and 2017, Rutherford took the inability to win a third as perhaps the most devastating slight of his entire life. From the 2018 offseason and beyond, he set the Penguins upon a path of total and unflinching destruction, in which Tuesday’s Matt Murray trade serves as the latest chapter.

It all began on July 1, 2018, the day Rutherford handed a then-31-year-old Jack Johnson a five-year, $16.25 million contract that was doomed from the moment the idea first popped into his head. Even at the time, Johnson was considered perhaps the worst analytical defenseman in all of hockey, someone possessing the unique dual threat of complete possession-driving ineptitude while opting to treat the defensive zone like an Olive Garden. When you’re there, you’re family.

Everyone signs bad contracts, though. This is the NHL — financial boat anchors are a pillar of the economy. And when taking those boat anchors into account, Johnson’s $3.25 million cap hit wasn’t horrible, per se. Rather, it was the way Rutherford doubled down — and then tripled down, and then quadrupled down, etc. — on the deal’s perceived genius that made it stand out.

“Here’s my summary of this situation,” Rutherford told The Athletic’s Josh Yohe in a piece titled “GMJR defends Jack Johnson, wants him to finish career as a Penguin” that was published on Aug. 20, “Maybe Jack Johnson isn’t as good as I think he is. Maybe. But he’s not as bad as all of the anti-Jack Johnson people think he is.”

“Whether it’s for someone else or it’s for the Penguins, he’ll play the three years what’s left on his deal.”

Rutherford bought Johnson out a little over a month later.

Done to help relieve the Penguins’ tight cap situation, Johnson’s departure was only possible thanks to Rutherford acquiring his replacement — both in a financial and productivity (or lack thereof) standpoint.

In shipping forward Patric Hornqvist to the Florida Panthers for Mike Matheson, Rutherford managed to swap out one analytically-ineffectual defender signed to a laughably lucrative and undeserved contract for another.

Only with Matheson’s current deal expiring in the fictional year of 2026, his is longer.

Matheson, whose career-high in points is 27, didn’t exactly have a stellar 2019-20, serving as a frequent healthy scratch for the Panthers in both the regular season and playoffs all while pulling down a $4.875 million cap hit.

Yes, Matheson is actually more expensive than Johnson was. And when combining his earnings with Johnson’s $1.667 million buyout penalty, the two easily eclipse the $5.3 million that Hornqvist — who was traded for cap reasons, remember — is owed for the coming season.

Oh, and that aforementioned $1.667 million finally comes off Pittsburgh’s books in 2026. Right at the same time as Matheson. What a fun fact!

Is there more? You better believe there’s more.

In late August, Rutherford dealt a first-round pick, prospect Filip Hallander and depth forward Evan Rodrigues (along with a random depth D) to the Toronto Maple Leafs in return for a 27-year-old RFA winger signed to a KHL contract, a disappointing defense prospect and Kasperi Kapanen.

Kapanen was, of course, the pièce de résistance of the deal, with the price for his services being justified by Rutherford’s assertion that the 24-year-old can play in Pittsburgh’s top-six and, perhaps more importantly, flourish alongside one of Sidney Crosby or Evgeni Malkin.

If Rutherford had done even just a smidge of digging on the subject, or taken a quick trip over to Leafs Twitter, he would’ve learned something a tad different. Namely, that the whole reason behind the Maple Leafs putting Kapanen on the trade block at all was, in fact, his inability to play in the top-six and flourish alongside their own two superstar centers, Auston Matthews and John Tavares.

So, to recap: Rutherford shipped out the 15th overall pick in what many labelled the deepest draft in recent memory (frittering away the potential of employing a high-end contributor making ELC wages under a flat cap) and the No. 2-ranked prospect in a Penguins pipeline that The Athletic’s Corey Pronman deems the second-worst in the entire NHL for a player whose track record to this point lists him as incapable of fulfilling the two distinct roles he was acquired for.

And those are just the latest moves.

Sure, I could go on for days about Rutherford’s litany of recent mistakes. About his failure to maximize Phil Kessel’s 94-point season in 2019 and instead trading him for a fourth-rounder and Alex Galchenyuk, who was then dealt less than a year later. About his decision to give up a 2021 third-rounder in exchange for eight games and two points from a 40-year-old Patrick Marleau. Or even about his desire to lock Brendan Tanev up for six years for reasons beyond human comprehension.

But all of that and much, much more, would distract from the latest edition of this tantalizing saga. The one which kicked off Day 2 of the 2020 NHL Draft when Rutherford sold off the goaltender who helped net him those consecutive Stanley Cups before losing Calder eligibility to Ottawa for a second-rounder and a “meh” prospect.

Talk about Murray’s pricey impending contract all you want, a 26-year-old, two-time Cup winner should be able to fetch more than that. He has to.

And yet, even as Rutherford reads this piece and begins arrangements for my dismissal from the hockey media industry, he can still turn to the two Stanley Cup rings adorning his mantle and feel peace.

Maybe they can figure out what he’s doing.

More NHL coverage from Yahoo Sports