Jim Rutherford returns to the game with a big challenge in Vancouver

Over the years, we’ve had many occasions to chat with Jim Rutherford, the new hockey executive and interim GM of the Vancouver Canucks.

We hung out in his office and he’s been on various podcasts we’ve hosted over the years. We spoke on the phone and spoke at GM and Board of Governors meetings.

One morning in a small community rink in Pittsburgh, we ran into Rutherford while we were both watching our son play hockey.

And our opinion is probably no different from the hundreds of hockey players who have interacted with Rutherford over the years. He is a gentleman, progressive, caring, big-hearted, smiley and generous in spirit.

But – and again this is well known by those who have interacted with the GM Hall of Fame – never mistake his inner good nature for a lack of competitiveness. There was a line of steel that ran the length and breadth of the man Jim Rutherford.

And never, ever fault him on a game day.

Rutherford showed up for the game early and it kept happening, win or lose.

Rutherford, 72, was in top form last Monday when he was officially introduced to the Vancouver fan base. He joked that it was true that current coach Bruce Boudreau, hired a week ago, scored his first NHL goal against Rutherford because they were friends and Rutherford felt bad that Boudreau didn’t score. a lot of.

And he jokes that he’s getting out of his self-imposed life out of the game – he left the Pittsburgh Penguins less than a year ago – because he misses the stress.

But the jokes reveal a real truth about this recruitment.

Rutherford took the position not because he needed the job, but because he loved a challenge and Canucks is nothing if not a challenge.

“There are holes in this lineup,” said Rutherford. “There are areas that need improvement.”

GM likes a fast team and the Canucks are not a fast team. But Rutherford hopes they can learn to play more agile to make up for that.

He credits Thatcher Demko as an excellent goalkeeper the team can develop. He also likes the potential of foundation defender Quinn Hughes and unsuccessful striker Elias Pettersson.

The challenge for Rutherford will be to determine where the Canucks fit on that spectrum between rebuilding and competing.

The Canucks responded to a new head coach, introduced exactly a week ago, with four wins in a row.

But even with that, the Canucks are still in seventh place in the Pacific Division with 0.448 points while the second wild card team in the Western Conference, Vegas, is at 0.593. In short, the possibility of the Canucks entering the playoff discussion remains a long-standing proposition.

He has promised that he will not consider trading high draft options and that he does not want to take the trade early, although he does admit other GMs have spoken to him since. news of his new post leaked.

The reality, he said, is that he won’t really know the exact location of the Canucks until late January.

“I understand it’s a challenge,” Rutherford said. “We all know that. There’s a lot to do here. That’s why I’m here. I will try my best. ”

Social media is alive with people pointing to moves Rutherford has made in the past that have gone unremarkable, such as the acquisitions of Jack Johnson and Erik Gudbrandson.

Guess what? It happened when you were a GM since the mid-1990s.

For us, the big question is not what specific deals Rutherford has made or failed to make – or could or might have done in the coming days in Vancouver – but how he continues to do so. approached rebuilding this team’s structure, starting with the hockey operations department.

“My focus was immediately restructured,” Rutherford said of hockey.

He has a list of about 40 people from which a new GM can emerge. He is expected to start calling, gathering information perhaps as early as tonight. This weekend, he hopes to send an assistant GM to help him with the Canucks machine in action.

For us, that’s Rutherford’s strength, and that’s proven by the 3 Stanley Cup rings he owns, including consecutive Cup wins in Pittsburgh in 2016 and 2017 and a plaque bearing the image of him in the Hockey Hall of Fame in Toronto.

Those are the man’s yardsticks – not whether he’s made a personnel mistake among the hundreds of deals he’s made over the decades.

Tom Fitzgerald, GM of the New Jersey Devils, was working for Rutherford when Rutherford took over Ray Shero as GM in Pittsburgh in June 2014.

Fitzgerald recounts that Rutherford was quiet and very funny.

“And very free,” Fitzgerald said Monday.

Whether it’s a signing or a prospect has been brought in by a member of the hockey team, he always makes sure to share his praise.

“He’s been great with me,” Fitzgerald said. “He treated me as if I had worked with him for 10 years, not just a year.”

What makes Rutherford such an important figure for a young executive like Fitzgerald and his colleagues, Jason Karmanos, Jason Botterill and now Wild GM Bill Guerin, is that Rutherford created the roles. clear to his employees and then he let them do his job.

“Jimmy was a mentor to me,” Fitzgerald said. “I learned a lot from him.”

Guerin feels that Rutherford will return to the game sooner and, like Fitzgerald, believes Rutherford’s experience will benefit anyone entering as GM and those already in Vancouver hockey. .

“For me, the unique thing about Jim is that he didn’t micromanage you,” says Guerin. “He let me do my job and what I felt I needed to do to get better.”

Rutherford would ask his staff what he was doing and he would offer his opinion if asked. But otherwise, employees have the autonomy to learn and grow in their role.

“It’s like just making sure you’re getting work done, and I think that’s a great way to do that,” said Guerin, whose Wild was one of the season’s surprises by sitting at the top. first in the Central Division, said. “You don’t want someone hovering over you all the time.”

It is part of Rutherford’s nature that will be crucial to his success in Vancouver.

At some point, Rutherford will bring in a GM he’ll be working with to try to map out a roadmap for a team the Canucks have been with for most of the past decade.

He will be tasked with helping Henrik and Daniel Sedin find their place and voice in the organization.

He’s a consensus builder and that makes for a welcoming place for sedans.

Rutherford also hails from a Pittsburgh organization, where his job is to ensure that superstars Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin have a supporting cast that gives the Pens at least a chance of winning the playoffs every day. five.

“Jim doesn’t mind pulling the trigger,” Fitzgerald said. “He knows what his team needs and he goes out and gets it. I don’t expect that to change in Vancouver.”

Fitzgerald noted: “He is a Hall of Famer for a reason.

He built a Stanley Cup champion in Carolina and then endured years of having to build a team under severe financial constraints before shifting gears and helping the Penguins win a rare championship repeat. This job in Vancouver feels like somewhere in between, and it looks like Rutherford is getting ready to let his fight return, even if most of the early heavy lifting will be internal rather than on ice. Jim Rutherford returns to the game with a big challenge in Vancouver

Britta Zeltmann

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