Jim Rutherford has every reason to be confident as he joins the Vancouver Canucks as their new president of hockey operations. He has three Stanley Cups, won with two very different teams, and he’s already been inducted into the Hockey Hall of Fame as a builder.
On Monday morning at Rogers Arena, however, Rutherford combined his confidence with caution. He made it clear that he wants to take his time evaluating the team and struck a balance with his initial assessment.
“When you look at something 3,000 miles away, it looks a lot different than it does when you walk into the dressing room,” said Rutherford. “My answer based on 3,000 miles away and having my feet on the ground in Vancouver for 24 hours is that this group is obviously better than the first 20 games but I’m not so sure that it may be even a little better than people think.
“Now, with that being said, there’s work to be done here. There’s holes in the lineup. There’s areas that have to be worked on.”
Now it’s time for the new president of hockey operations to get to work.
“It's not the cycle we're in to trade high draft picks.”
Rutherford is known for being a very active GM, making far more trades than average but suggested he won’t rush to make any changes — “I’ll wait today because you’ll have enough to write about,” he joked to the assembled media.
“With the parity in this league…if you lose the wrong two guys, you drop drastically and if you add the right two guys, you can move up drastically,” said Rutherford.
That should resonate with Canucks fans who saw the difference made by losing players like Chris Tanev, Jacob Markstrom, and Tyler Toffoli in one offseason. What might resonate even more is what he said about trading draft picks.
In his seven seasons as GM of the Pittsburgh Penguins, Rutherford traded away six first-round picks.
He traded the Penguins’ 2015 first-round pick, which was eventually used by the New York Islanders to draft Mathew Barzal, to the Edmonton Oilers for David Perron. The 2016 first-round pick went to the Toronto Maple Leafs as part of the Phil Kessel trade.
The Penguins’ 2017 first-round pick, along with Oskar Sundqvist, went to the St. Louis Blues for Ryan Reaves and a 2nd round pick. The 2018 first-round went to the Ottawa Senators as part of a three-team trade that brought in Derrik Brassard.
Most recently, Rutherford traded their 2020 first-round pick to the Maple Leafs in the Kasperi Kapanen trade and traded their 2021 first-round pick to the Minnesota Wild as part of the trade for Jason Zucker.
Considering he just succeeded a GM who traded away first-round picks in back-to-back years, that might justifiably make some Canucks fans nervous but the Penguins were in a very different situation. Rutherford was doing his best to maximize the Penguins’ Stanley Cup window with Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin. That’s not where the Canucks are right now.
“I want to be careful with our trades,” said Rutherford. “I don't want to trade draft picks, unless they're later round picks. It's not the cycle we're in to trade high draft picks.”
That recognition of where the Canucks are currently is key and one that the previous regime seemed to struggle with, pushing just to make the playoffs instead of maximizing a window of Cup contention.
Rutherford added that any trades he makes, he’ll be looking to get younger in the deal.
“So, as we move along, if it takes a couple of years to bring it together to be more of a contender, then we’ve got the right age group that they can come together,” he said. “If I brought a veteran guy in — somebody in their 30s or something — maybe short term that’s different.”
That ought to be music to the ears of Canucks fans frustrated with some of the more shortsighted moves in recent years. It’s also intriguing — if he only wants veterans on short-term deals, what does that mean for the veterans already on the Canucks on long-term deals?
Rutherford doesn’t regret Johnson and Gudbranson deals
In Pittsburgh, Rutherford put together a strong analytics team, headed up by Sam Ventura, who has a PhD in statistics and founded analytics site War-On-Ice, which provided the template for many public analytics sites today.
Not all of Rutherford’s decisions aligned with what might be called accepted wisdom in analytics circles, however. The two moves that stand out the most are both on defence, which is particularly pertinent given that the defence corps is one of the Canucks’ main issues.
One is the Jack Johnson signing, a five-year deal in 2018 for which any analytics model would have been sounding alarm bells. The other was the trade for Erik Gudbranson, sending a valuable two-way winger in Tanner Pearson for the big, physical, but ultimately detrimental defenceman.
Rutherford made it clear: he has no regrets.
“I use analytics a lot and I really like it,” he said. “But it's not what I make my decision on and you make hockey decisions for different reasons and I don't regret making those two decisions because Jack Johnson was a big part of our dressing room and a big part of our team and he did some good things for us. He didn't get a good chance in Pittsburgh because he was never accepted from day one.
“You're not going to have all skilled, skating guys. In Gudbranson's case, we needed defense at that point in time and we needed a physical guy because we didn't have one. I like his character and he served a purpose when he was there.”
“I have compiled a list of 40 people.”
Long-term, the intent isn’t necessarily for Rutherford to make trades and sign free agents. The team still intends to hire a permanent GM to take over, leaving Rutherford as just the president of hockey operations.
“I have compiled a list of 40 people and I put them in categories as…potential general managers,” said Rutherford. “One category is of guys that have already been GMs and are no longer with their team. The other group is a lot of assistant general managers that would be entry level GMs that I could mentor and work with which I really enjoy. I have a number of guys around the league that I've mentored and gone on to be GMs and coaches.”
One of the downsides to those two categories is that they tend to be very restricted to a certain demographic. There has never been a female general manager in the NHL and, to my knowledge, just one female assistant general manager in NHL history — Angela Gorgone for one season with the Anaheim Mighty Ducks in the 90’s.
Likewise, there has never been a BIPOC general manager in the NHL. When the Florida Panthers hired Brett Peterson last year, he became the first Black assistant general manager in NHL history.
Limiting a search for a new general manager to former GMs and current assistant GMs has the consequence of excluding a large portion of the population.
“I know our society is changing all the time and I would like to see a more diverse staff, if possible,” said Rutherford. “Now, that's easy for me to sit here and say — you really have to search for that, for people that want to do it and are capable of doing it.”
“The more new, fresh people we have…the easier it’s going to be.”
Rutherford said that he intends to bring in an assistant general manager this week, nothing that the hockey operations department is “lighter” than it was a week ago after Aquilini fired Chris Gear and Jonathan Wall last Friday. Rutherford also made clear that he had nothing to do with their dismissal, saying that he did not request any changes to hockey operations before he arrived.
“I didn’t request any moves. But when you’re changing the culture, sometimes when you have people that have been here a long time, it’s harder to do,” said Rutherford. “I’m not saying that those people couldn’t do it, but I think the more new, fresh people we have in there, the easier it’s going to be.”
While Rutherford intends an extensive search to build out his hockey operations staff, his own hiring as president of hockey ops was slightly more perfunctory. That became clear when Aquilini was asked how many people he interviewed aside from Rutherford.
“The first part was, I was looking for a GM,” said Aquilini. “When I looked at this whole situation and when I was talking to Jim — because we had been discussing this — Jim thought that a president role would be something he would be interested in.
“When he said that to me, that kind of piqued my interest and I thought, you know, that could work well, have a president/GM, and then two roles, I think that’s something we want to do. A president role is somebody that needs somebody of Jim’s stature and so we’re fortunate that he said yes, and so we just went with it.”
In other words, no, they didn’t interview anyone other than Rutherford.
“We have a franchise goalie.”
One area for the Canucks Rutherford wasn’t shy about praising was goaltending.
“One of the real pluses for us is we have a franchise goalie,” said Rutherford. “And when you're trying to build a championship team, and you already have that piece in place, then you can start chipping away at things.”
Rutherford has had some quality goaltenders on his past Stanley Cup-winning teams. Cam Ward won the Conn Smythe Trophy for the Carolina Hurricanes in 2006, Matt Murray was fantastic for the Pittsburgh Penguins in 2016, and both Murray and Marc-Andre Fleury excelled in 2017.
It’s not surprising, then, that Rutherford recognizes the importance of a great goaltender.
One person to keep an eye on is Ian Clark. Despite goaltending playing a major role in the Penguins’ back-to-back Stanley Cups, Rutherford had no qualms about dismissing goaltending coach Mike Bales, firing him the day after the team’s 2017 Stanley Cup parade.
Bales was replaced by Mike Buckley, who had worked with Murray with the Wilkes-Barre Penguins. Since Fleury, who Bales had been close with, was heading to the Vegas Golden Knights, Rutherford made the change.
Obviously, Demko greatly enjoys working with Clark, going as far assaying he “desperately” hoped the team could re-sign Clark earlier this year. But Buckley was let go by the Penguins just a few months ago and is available.
It’s something to keep an eye on.
“It’s an awful incident.”
In Pittsburgh, Rutherford was GM of the Penguins when the coach of their AHL team, the Wilkes-Barre Penguins, was accused of sexual assault. That situation resulted in a lawsuit against the Penguins that was recently settled out of court.
Now Rutherford is coming into Vancouver to join a team that has an internal investigation into allegations of sexual misconduct against a former Canucks player. The police investigation into those allegations is now in the hands of Crown prosecutors.
Rutherford addressed the situation on Monday.
“I had very little to do with the one in Pittsburgh. I think it was the draft in Vancouver that that terrible incident was brought to my attention and I told Billy Guerin, the day we get back to Pittsburgh, come in my office and this has to be handled immediately,” said Rutherford. “And we did — we turned it over to Human Resources. I had very little to do with Wilkes-Barre, so I wasn't really a part of that.
“But it's an awful incident. There was a settlement made — I take it the sides were comfortable with that — but it doesn't take care of what happened. Those things cannot happen.”
When asked if the Canucks would be transparent with the findings of their own internal investigation into the incident, owner Francesco Aquilini equivocated.
“That's under police investigation right now, so we really can't comment on it,” said Aquilini. “We just have to wait for the police reports to come out.”