The Pittsburgh Penguins continue their Eastern Conference Finals Series against the Tampa Bay Lightning.
Following the first round elimination of the Penguins in last year’s Stanley Cup Playoffs, general manager Jim Rutherford was highly criticized for his mid-season moves in hopes of revamping the team.
It seemed as if the longtime Carolina Hurricanes GM would be given the boot if the team faltered again in 2015-2016. But as the Penguins sit two wins away from the Stanley Cup Finals, the frustration with Rutherford has turned to praise and a nomination for executive of the year in the NHL, an award he rightfully deserves.
Rutherford again revamped the Penguins starting last July when he traded for disgruntled Toronto Maple Leaf scorer Phil Kessel. The move earned mixed reactions and looked like a bust in the first half of the season. Over the last few months, Kessel has caught fire, playing some of the best hockey of his career. Kessel’s success can be credited to two other moves made by Rutherford, trading for Nick Bonino and Carl Hagelin.
Bonino was acquired a few weeks after the Kessel trade in a deal that sent Brandon Sutter to Vancouver. Hagelin was brought in January from Anaheim for David Perron, who Rutherford dealt for in a failed deal last season. Head coach Mike Sullivan combined the three trade pieces into an unstoppable third line, the HBK Line. The line helped to keep the Penguins rolling when the Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin failed to provide any offensive help.
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You can thank Rutherford for Sullivan, who was hired originally to be the coach of the Baby Penguins. But after the Pens GM finally wised up and dumped the small potatoes coach in Mike Johnston, Sullivan has called up from the minors and injected life into the team.
The same day Sullivan coached his first game as Penguins coach, Rutherford again made another masterful trade, dumping the over the hill Rob Scuderi on Chicago for Trevor Daley. While Scuderi was slow and on his last legs, Daley has flourished on the Penguins defense and has come up big in these playoffs.
Of all these moves, the one that clinched the executive of the year award for Rutherford is the signing of veteran Matt Cullen. No one thought much of Cullen when he was signed back in August. He was 38 and seemed not to have anything left in the tank. The veteran center proved everyone wrong, scoring his most goals (16) since the 09-10 season. He has added four big goals in the playoffs and has brought a veteran presence to the locker room, he has been this group’s Bill Guerin.
Now with the Penguins just six wins away from hoisting another Stanley Cup, Rutherford has gone from being on the hot seat to being the savior for this team.