Ron Cook: Hiring of Jim Rutherford as general manager makes no sense

Firing Ray Shero as Penguins general manager was one thing. You can make a strong argument the team is old, soft and top-heavy and that it badly underachieved in the playoffs the past five seasons, losing to lower seeds. That was the position taken by Penguins president David Morehouse three weeks ago when he announced Shero was out to the surprise of many in the hockey world who thought Shero deserved better.

But hiring Jim Rutherford as the new general manager Friday? Rutherford was pushed aside in Carolina after the Hurricanes failed to make the postseason in each of the past five seasons. He is 65, deep into the back nine of his long NHL career. This is the Penguins’ idea of a step up? Conducting what Morehouse called a “thorough” search involving 30 applicants and 22 interviewees and settling for a discard from one of the league’s worst hockey clubs? It makes no sense.

Keeping Shero would have been better.

That’s easy to say for reasons that go beyond Shero fleecing Rutherford in a couple of trades, although those deals turned out to be remarkable for the Penguins. On draft day 2012, Shero sent center Jordan Staal to Carolina for center Brandon Sutter, defensive prospect Brian Dumoulin and a No. 1 draft choice — the eighth pick — that turned out to be defenseman Derrick Pouliot. Then in April 2013, Shero acquired forward Jussi Jokinen from the Hurricanes for a seventh-round pick with Rutherford agreeing to pay $900,000 of Jokinen’s $3 million salary this season.

Jokinen led the Penguins with seven goals in this spring’s playoffs and Sutter was one of their best players. Dumoulin played in six NHL games this season and should have, at least, a decent pro career. Pouliot is considered a future star. Staal hasn’t played as well in Carolina as he did in Pittsburgh with 25 goals, 71 points and a minus-16 rating in 130 games the past two seasons. He hasn’t come close to living up to the 10-year, $60 million contract Rutherford gave him.

READ MORE: Penguins' new general manager fires Bylsma

But even if those deals had been less lopsided, it would be hard to get excited about Rutherford at this point of his career. He stepped aside in April to become Carolina’s president and allow former Penguins great Ron Francis to take over as general manager. Five weeks ago, Rutherford decided to leave the game. You know what Chuck Noll used to say about retirement, right? When a man is considering it, he should do it because his heart won’t be in his work.

A younger-and-coming star would have been a better choice for the Penguins job. Reports had the team talking to front-office executives Julien BriseBois of Tampa Bay and Paul Fenton of Nashville. Each is intriguing. So is Shero assistant Jason Botterill, who was kept on by Rutherford as associate general manager and eventually could take the top job. Even NBC broadcaster Pierre McGuire would have made more sense. He doesn’t have Rutherford’s experience, but his work ethic and will to succeed for friend/Penguins owner Mario Lemieux are impressive. We’re not talking about brain surgery here, you know?

Rutherford predicted he will have the Penguins job for no more than two or three years. That’s probably a reflection of the franchise’s win-now-or-else mentality more than of his age. “This certainly isn’t a rebuild,” Morehouse said. If Rutherford doesn’t get the team deeper in the playoffs than Shero did the past five seasons — and do it quickly — he, too, will be fired.

Rutherford might be here only for one season. Can’t you see the Penguins taking a run at Detroit Red Wings coach Mike Babcock when his contract runs out after next season? They could give him complete control of the hockey operations.

Rutherford’s first official duty Friday was to fire coach Dan Bylsma, although he made it clear that was management’s call, not his. That added to the confusion as to why Bylsma wasn’t fired when Shero was. Rutherford’s choice for coach will be telling. He said he has a “very short list.” Former NHL head coaches Ron Wilson and John Stevens have been mentioned as potential candidates. If Rutherford goes with an older hockey lifer such as Jacques Martin, who was on Bylsma’s staff, the possibility of Babcock being here after next season will seem more likely.

Rutherford has other important decisions to make. He said the Penguins don’t have the pieces necessary to win the Stanley Cup but quickly added they don’t need “sweeping changes.” He talked of adding a better supporting cast to superstars Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin — third- and fourth-line players — and bringing in a more vocal leader. It’s almost certain he wants to add some toughness, as well.

It’s easy to say what the Penguins need, a lot harder to get it. Rutherford acknowledged the Penguins won’t be an “exciting” player in free agency because the team is against the salary cap. That leaves trades. It will be interesting to see if Rutherford is willing to move James Neal or Chris Kunitz or even Kris Letang if he can find a team to take on Letang’s eight-year, $58 million contract and any lingering worries about his long-term health after his stroke in February. Beyond trades, can Rutherford find a way to keep free-agent defenseman Matt Niskanen? What does he do with goaltender Marc-Andre Fleury, who will be in the final year of his contract next season?

“I know my experience will be able to help this organization,” Rutherford said, sounding confident. “We can do this in the very near future.”

It’s easy to understand Rutherford’s enthusiasm. He said the Carolina job “really wore on me” the past few seasons. He will have many more resources with the Penguins. Lemieux and Ron Burkle are considered among the NHL’s strongest owners.

But it’s a lot harder to be excited about Rutherford’s hiring. It doesn’t feel right at all.

Ron Cook: Ron Cook can be heard on the “Cook and Poni” show weekdays from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. on 93.7 The Fan.

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