PITTSBURGH – Jim Rutherford doesn’t believe the Pittsburgh Penguins need to undergo a massive overhaul to regain their spot among the NHL’s elite.
One thing is for certain: Dan Bylsma won’t be part of the process.
The Penguins fired the franchise’s all-time winningest coach Friday while hiring Rutherford away from the Carolina Hurricanes to replace Ray Shero as general manager. Rutherford’s first decision was to end the three weeks of limbo for Bylsma, whose star-laden teams had fallen well short of the Stanley Cup since winning it all in 2009.
“What ownership wants here is a complete change in direction, one with the GM and one with the coach,” Rutherford said.
Bylsma won 252 games behind the bench and was the Jack Adams Award winner in 2012 as the NHL’s Coach of the Year but failed to produce a bookend to the championship he captured with stars Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin in 2009. The Penguins were just 4-5 in playoff series since raising the 2009 Cup, with each loss coming to a lower-seeded team.
Pittsburgh’s latest defeat came last month when the Penguins fell to the New York Rangers in seven games in the Eastern Conference semifinals.
Rutherford met with Bylsma Friday morning as part of an organization-wide shake-up. In addition to dismissing Bylsma, the Penguins promoted Jason Botterill to associate general manager, named Bill Guerin and Tom Fitzgerald assistant general managers.
The 65-year-old Rutherford takes over for Shero, who was fired on May 16. The new gig is a homecoming for the former goaltender. Rutherford played for the Penguins in the 1970s before spending 20 years with the franchise that began as the Hartford Whalers, moved to North Carolina in 1997 and won the Stanley Cup in 2006.
The Hurricanes struggled maintaining that success, missing the postseason each of the last five years. It led to Rutherford stepping down in April when the Hurricanes promoted Ron Francis – who helped Pittsburgh win consecutive Cups in 1991 and ’92 – to the GM’s job. Rutherford took on an advisory role in Carolina with a small ownership stake in the team, a position he will relinquish in the near future.
The Penguins, meanwhile, plan to get their money’s worth out of a man closer to the end of his career than the beginning. Rutherford allowed he will likely only be around “two or three years” and will serve as a mentor to his new staff, adding he will give Botterill and company “big roles with a lot to say.”
Rutherford hopes to find Bylsma’s replacement by the time free agency begins in July. Considering the talent at the top of the roster, the job will certainly be attractive. Finding the right fit, however, may be challenging.
“With some changes, they don’t have to be sweeping changes, we can (win another Cup) in the near future,” Rutherford said.
While it’s unlikely Rutherford will do much to mess with the core of Crosby, Malkin and defenseman Kris Letang, there are some serious depth issues, particularly along the bottom two lines.
“Our supporting cast needs to be improved,” Rutherford said. “I look at our fourth-line players and some of those guys are in double-digit minuses and we can’t have that.”
What the Penguins do have is arguably the league’s best player in Crosby and one of its most dynamic in Malkin. The duo has dominated during the regular season when healthy – with Crosby the favorite to pick up his second Hart Trophy as league MVP after leading the NHL with 114 points this season – but that success hasn’t translated into deep playoff runs.
Crosby struggled in the postseason. He scored just once in 13 games while maintaining he was not injured. Rutherford will try to find the right kind of role players to take some of the pressure off his high-wattage stars.
Coincidentally, the Hurricanes are also looking for a new coach – Francis’ first big decision in his new job was firing Kirk Muller after three years – and Carolina has been mentioned as a possible landing spot for Bylsma.
The move by Rutherford – who won 44 games in net for the Penguins from 1971-74 – is the latest in a series of significant ties between the organizations.
Carolina has the longest active playoff drought among Eastern Conference teams. Its last postseason appearance came in 2009 – when the Hurricanes were swept in the East final by a Penguins team that went on to win its only Stanley Cup under Shero’s leadership, the crowning achievement of his eight years as Pittsburgh’s GM.
Rutherford and Shero orchestrated the blockbuster trade of the 2012 NHL draft when forward Jordan Staal was sent to Carolina and reunited with big brother Eric in exchange for Sutter and prospects.