Jason Mackey: Jim Rutherford has followed a familiar script with Canucks. Is there anything the Penguins can learn?

Jason Mackey, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette on

Published in Hockey

PITTSBURGH — While Penguins fans endure a second consecutive spring without playoff hockey, a familiar story featuring some Trader Jim guy who used to work here has transpired on the other side of North America.

Yep, ol' Jim Rutherford, 75 years young, has transformed the Canucks — with just one playoff visit over the previous eight seasons before this one — into legitimate contenders for the Stanley Cup.

Named president of hockey operations and interim general manager on Dec. 9, 2021, four days after former GM Jim Benning was fired, Rutherford has followed a familiar playbook to lead a spectacular turnaround in Vancouver.

The 2019 Hockey Hall of Fame inductee has actually pulled some of the same strings that have characterized his four-plus decades in the game, and there also could be a few lessons for the current Penguins regime.

I texted Rutherford to see if he'd be willing to reflect on the past couple of seasons, when the Canucks finished seventh, fifth and sixth before winning the Pacific Division with 109 points in 2023-24.

Rutherford politely declined, explaining he'd rather stay quiet while games were ongoing, which was qualified as a rarity for one of the chattiest GMs in the history of pro sports. But it also doesn't prevent me from writing what I've observed.


Culture change

The Penguins were struggling in December 2015. Former coach Mike Johnston wasn't reaching any of the team's star players. The group looked old and slow. Their record after a shootout loss to the Kings on Dec. 11, 2015: 15-10-3.

Swapping Mikes turned out to be a franchise-altering decision, as it resulted in the Penguins rediscovering their identity under Sullivan. The speed, the tenacity, the reliance on young players. It worked then. Resuscitating it now wouldn't be a bad idea.

It's been much the same in Vancouver, as Rutherford hired Rick Tocchet on Jan. 22, 2023. The Canucks finished 20-12-4 in 36 games under Tocchet in 2023-24. Now, Tocchet's direct approach (just like Sullivan), plus the culture created and the respect gained from players has led to arguably the best coaching job in the NHL this season.


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