Just as soon as it arrived, the Stan Smyl era of the Vancouver Canucks’ front office has come to an end, the former captain going undefeated as GM over his two-game stint.
Replacing him is Hall of Famer Jim Rutherford, hired by the team Thursday as the club’s president of hockey operations and interim GM.
The 72-year-old’s legacy in the game is well-established at this point. Two decades in Carolina, another seven seasons in Pittsburgh, and three Stanley Cup rings along the way. If there’s one thing to know about Rutherford’s time in the league, it’s this: he doesn’t shy away from a trade, or two, or many more than that. Not just the blockbusters, but the AHL swaps and everything in between.
The veteran manager made 59 total trades during his time as Pittsburgh’s GM, plenty of those involving the same players, acquired and then flipped for others, or traded away and brought back in. The results speak for themselves, though there have been a fair number of questionable calls dotted among those home-run deals.
There’s plenty to draw from to analyze what kind of president the Canucks are getting to run things. Let’s focus on Rutherford’s latest decade in the league — here’s a look at his biggest moves, his wildest misses, and his overall approach to running the show during his time as the Penguins’ general manager.
Embrace the blockbuster
For those who only paid passing attention to the Penguins during Rutherford’s tenure, at least this much should be known: he’s no stranger to a blockbuster. He made that much clear from the beginning, his first deal as Pittsburgh’s GM — just 21 days into the role — a swap that sent sniper James Neal to Nashville.
‘Blockbuster’ may be pushing it, but at the time, it was a bold opening move. Though Neal’s departure wasn’t necessarily shocking, the winger was fresh off a campaign that saw him post 27 goals and 61 points through 59 games. He was just a couple seasons removed from a 40-goal campaign on Evgeni Malkin’s wing, the two having developed undeniable chemistry. Neal was just two years into a six-year extension with the club.
But Rutherford identified a need to change the Penguins’ identity, and swapped out Neal — a talented sniper who’d developed a penchant for keeping to the perimeter and taking untimely penalties — for a heart-and-soul, net-front battler in Patric Hornqvist. It wound up an essential shift in the club’s timeline, Hornqvist playing a key role in the two Stanley Cups that would follow a couple years later.
Rutherford’s biggest move, though, the bona fide blockbuster that played the most central role in lifting the Penguins back to the Stanley Cup pinnacle, came a year later — a massive deal that saw Pittsburgh acquire Phil Kessel, Tim Erixon, Tyler Biggs and a second-round pick from the Toronto Maple Leafs, in exchange for Kasperi Kapanen, Nick Spaling, Scott Harrington, a first-round pick and a third-round pick.
Kessel led the Penguins in post-season scoring (goals and points) as they lifted the Cup in his first year with the club, finishing among their top playoff scorers again the next year as they went back-to-back.
Lesson learned: if there’s a big-ticket deal to be had, and Rutherford feels the fit is right, count on him to take a run at it. Even aside from the full-on blockbusters and marquee names, history suggests Rutherford is just as up for significant deals involving lesser names but plenty of pieces — while in Pittsburgh, he made seven deals that featured at least five pieces being swapped in total.
Not afraid to take swings
Aside from those seven, though, there were far, far more deals in total, with no shortage of swings from the Penguins GM while at the helm.
Simply put, if there was a name out there who was available and seemed like a potential fit, Rutherford made a move. He brought players in simply to try them out and see what that fit looked like. On one hand, it’s tough to fault that strategy — building around a talented core, Rutherford rolled the dice on all manner of forwards who’d put up numbers in the past and looked like they might be able to make some magic in Pittsburgh. He brought in names like David Perron and Nick Bjugstad, forwards who’d flirted with 30 goals but hadn’t quite reached their potential. He tried Derick Brassard out as the team’s elusive third-line pivot for a time. He even gave veteran Patrick Marleau a spin near the end.
Because of the sheer volume of attempts, there were some undeniable hits on Rutherford’s resume.
Kessel was the clearest, but the winger’s greatest stretch — during that 2016 post-season — came alongside two linemates that Rutherford also traded for: Nick Bonino and Carl Hagelin. The former filled a dire need as the third-line centre, the latter bringing some much-needed speed. The trio — dubbed the HBK line — ended up as Pittsburgh’s most effective line during that 2016 run.
Later moves up front brought in quality depth pieces as the Penguins continued to rotate in talent around the core, forwards like Jared McCann and Jason Zucker standing out among the other additions.
On the blue line, Rutherford’s wheeling and dealing brought in a number of key defenders who played crucial roles in those two Cup runs as well — Ian Cole and Ben Lovejoy in 2016, veteran Ron Hainsey in 2017. Marcus Pettersson and Jamie Oleksiak were later acquisitions that proved worth a gamble. The current squad is still benefitting from Rutherford’s work in the form of young John Marino, who’s at times looked like he could one day be the team’s No. 1 on the back end.
Rutherford’s best blue-line work came from his penchant for taking a flier on players other clubs had given up on, though. Tops among those were Justin Schultz and Trevor Daley, both of whom became essential members of the Penguins championship squads, particularly in 2017, with blue-line leader Kris Letang sidelined.
Key to remember is the fact that, while Rutherford had a stellar core to build around — a Hall of Fame-worthy one, in fact — there’s little doubt it was his retooling of the depth around that core that led the Penguins back to the top of the mountain. It started with the gutsy Neal deal, but not long after, he hit home runs on seven straight trades that reshaped the roster and set them on track for banners and rings: Lovejoy and Cole in March 2015, Kessel and Bonino in July 2015, Daley in December 2015, Hagelin in January 2016, Schultz in February 2016.
In and out
If there’s one indication of just how aggressive Rutherford was in working the trade market during his time in Pittsburgh, it was in the turnover seen on the Penguins roster, with players brought in, tried out, and moved on if they didn’t work out as expected.
Sometimes that approach worked. When it was time for Kessel to move on, Rutherford flipped him for a package that included Alex Galchenyuk (another reclamation project a la Schultz) and P.O. Joseph. While Joseph’s bloomed into a talented prospect, it soon became clear the fit wasn’t right for Galchenyuk, so Rutherford flipped him again, bringing Zucker to Pittsburgh.
When Rutherford decided to dismantle those back-to-back Cup teams and moved out defender Olli Maatta, he first brought in forward Dominik Kahun. After a quick run, Kahun was traded for Evan Rodrigues and the return of Conor Sheary (who Rutherford had traded away a couple years prior).
This one got even wackier — Rodrigues was flipped again, that same year, to Toronto for a package that brought back Kasperi Kapanen (previously dealt away by Rutherford). Unable to come to terms with the Maple Leafs, Rodrigues returned to the Penguins, who’d liked what they saw in his brief stint. Kapanen and Rodrigues have since become important depth pieces for the black and gold this season.
Another highly publicized in-and-out deal saw Rutherford reverse that very first trade he made, sending former acquisition Hornqvist packing in exchange for Mike Matheson and Colton Sceviour. While the return was criticized at the time, Matheson’s since become a useful puck mover on the back end for Pittsburgh.
Of course, there were other times that willingness to swap players in and out went sideways. The most obvious example was Rutherford opting to deal away Hagelin (who he’d previously acquired) in 2018, in exchange for Tanner Pearson. When Pearson didn’t work out, he flipped the forward for defender Erik Gudbranson. When Gudbranson didn’t work out, he flipped him for AHLer Andreas Martinsen and a seventh-rounder.
It was an ill-fated move from the start, as losing Hagelin proved more impactful than expected, made worse by a string of players who didn’t make nearly as significant a mark on the franchise.
Overall, there were 18 players Rutherford acquired and then eventually traded away.
Which brings us to the other side of the coin. A lot of good came from Rutherford’s aggressive dealing — there are two banners hanging from the rafters at PPG Paints Arena that suggest as much. But amid all those trades, there were bound to be misses. And oh, there were misses.
There was the deal that sent young centreman Oskar Sundqvist and a first-rounder to St. Louis in exchange for bruiser Ryan Reaves and a second-rounder. Brought into protect the stars, Reaves didn’t end up having the expected impact (he was later dealt away), while Sundqvist became a useful depth piece for the eventual Cup-winning Blues.
There was the trade that saw Pittsburgh unnecessarily lose two draft picks in a swap that involved Zach Sill, a second-rounder, and a fourth-rounder going to Toronto for Daniel Winnik, who in the end didn’t seem to fit with the group enough to make an impact worthy of that haul.
Or there was that swing for Brassard, an interesting gamble, but one that cost Rutherford far too much. Pittsburgh got their 3C experiment but gave up a useful defender in Cole, a talented goalie prospect in Filip Gustavsson, a third-round pick, and a first-round pick (which eventually became K’Andre Miller). The experiment didn’t pan out, Brassard posting only 23 points over parts of two seasons with the team before the two sides parted ways.
While Rutherford made up for this misstep by eventually flipping Brassard in a package for McCann and Bjugstad, that subsequent deal also saw the Penguins lose three more picks (a second-rounder and two fourths). That view of draft picks more as fodder for deals than opportunities to add prospects remained throughout Rutherford’s tenure at the helm, the club drafting in the first round just twice during his time in Pittsburgh.
If there was a key miss that came outside of the trade market, it was without a doubt Jack Johnson, acquired not through a swap but via a five-year, $16.25-million deal handed out to the then-32-year-old free agent. The signing was criticized at the time and didn’t age any better, eventually leading to a buyout two years into the pact. Luckily for Penguins fans, such deals were few and far between, their veteran manager choosing to do the majority of his work through an absurd number of trades.
Taken all together, the lesson here for the Canucks faithful is surely this: expect Rutherford to be active.
Just how active remains to be seen — in Pittsburgh he was building around a core that was ready to win at any moment, and clearly had the key pieces and the experience to do so. There was an undeniable urgency, and that played out in his decision-making. That won’t quite be the case in Vancouver, but regardless of how close he feels the Canucks core is, you can bet the Hall of Famer will be making calls to facilitate any additions and subtractions that will remake the club in line with his vision. And there are sure to be plenty.
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