The Penguins success is in large part due to the many talents of head coach Mike Sullivan and General Manager Jim Rutherford. The most interesting part of their respective successes and accomplishments isn’t just the fact that they are one game away from winning the program’s 4th Stanley Cup, but the moves and decisions they have not had tons of time to make to get there.
Let’s start with Jim Rutherford. Rutherford was hired in early June of 2014 by the Pittsburgh Penguins after being long-time General Manager of the Carolina Hurricanes. Not to mention he was GM of the Canes when they were the Hartford Whalers. To be exact, he was GM from 1994-2014, that’s not too shabby of a tenure. He took his extensive experience to a Penguins team that needed it. He started off by making one of the more heavy trades of the 2014 NHL Draft. He traded James Neal to the Nashville Predators for Patric Hornqvist and Nick Spaling. Nick Spaling has since bounced from team to team, while Patric Hornqvist has been a great fit and a real difference maker in Pittsburgh’s top 6 forward core. For a while after that, Rutherford wasn’t very active, until the 2015 trade deadline. On deadline day, he acquired Ben Lovejoy from the Anaheim Ducks for Simon Despres, as well as Ian Cole from the St. Louis Blues for Robert Bortuzzo and a 2016 7th round pick. Too this day, more than a year later, Lovejoy and Cole are still members Pittsburgh’s top 6 defense core. Here comes the really big one. On July 1, 2015, Jim Rutherford went out and acquired star winger Phil Kessel from the Toronto Maple Leafs, along with two prospects and a 2016 conditional 2nd round pick for Nick Spaling, a 2016 conditional first round pick, a 2016 3rd round pick and talented young prospects Kasperi Kapanen and Scott Harrington. Making the blockbuster trade of the summer in your second year as GM? That’s pretty bold. Now Phil Kessel has united with fellow Jim Rutherford acquisitions, Carl Hagelin and Nick Bonino, to form the HBK line.
Nick Bonino was acquired later in the summer of 2015 from the Vancouver Canucks, along with Adam Clendening and a 2016 2nd round pick for Brandon Sutter and a 2016 conditional 3rd round pick. 2/3 of the eventual and maybe not expected HBK line was acquired. Before the HBK line was complete, Rutherford shipped Rob Scuderi to the Chicago Blackhawks for Trevor Daley. Neither really seemed to thrive with their original teams, so not many thought much of the deal. Some people are thinking much differently after seeing what Trevor Daley could do in the 2016 Stanley Cup Playoffs, before he suffered an ankle injury in game 4 of the Eastern Conference Finals against the Tampa Bay Lightning. He has yet to return from the injury and most likely won’t for the remainder of the 2016 season. A month after acquiring Daley, Rutherford went out and got Carl Hagelin from the Anaheim Ducks for David Perron and Adam Clendening. The HBK line was assembled and has since gone on to be a driving force in the Penguins great success throughout the playoffs. Last but not least, Rutherford snagged Justin Schultz from the Edmonton Oilers for a 2016 3rd round pick two days before the 2016 trade deadline. Schultz has not been the most standout addition, but he has fit in better with the Penguins than he did with the Oilers. These moves should make Jim Rutherford the clear-cut winner of the NHL GM of the year award. These pieces in which he has acquired have all played important roles in the Penguins epic turnaround.
Mike Sullivan took over as head coach of the Pittsburgh Penguins on December 12, 2015, replacing Mike Johnston. Johnston had Penguins fans everywhere very frustrated, so seeing a new head coach brighten their days. Mike Sullivan hadn’t had a head coaching job since being let go as Boston Bruins head coach in June of 2006. The closest position he had such a position was when he became interim Vancouver Canucks head coach in 2014, while John Tortorella was suspended. Sullivan has now gone on to improve the Penguins with what Jim Rutherford got for him and what was already there. It’s a big story of the 2016 season worth of high praise, like Rutherford. He took a team on the verge of collapse and failure to a team that is one win away from winning the Stanley Cup. I remember seeing the Penguins at the bottom of Joe McDonald’s NHL power rankings in week 11 of the season; they were 15-14-3. They then went on to go 48-26-8, going 33-12-5 for the remainder of the 2016 regular season after looking defeated at the bottom of ESPN’s power rankings. What a job this Penguins team as a whole did to improve like they did, it’s unbelievable.
Will the Pens cap off one of the most incredible seasons in their history in just five games against the San Jose Sharks to lift Lord Stanley? Or will it take a little longer? The Sharks will look to reverse their fortune, but they have a very tough, fast team standing in their path to glory, the Stanley Cup.
*Image Source: dkpittsburghsports.com