Jim Rutherford wishes the Penguins’ tenure ended differently

It won’t be Jim Rutherford’s homecoming.

This is because it will not be in Pittsburgh.

When the Pittsburgh Penguins host the Vancouver Canucks at PPG Paints Arena on Tuesday, Rutherford will be three time zones to the west in British Columbia.

His current employer, the Canucks, would have scouting meetings, and as president of hockey operations, Rutherford would oversee all of that.

But Tuesday’s meeting will clearly mark a vital call given Rutherford’s history with the Penguins. As general manager, he guided the Penguins to their most recent Stanley Cup title in 2016 and 2017.

“I feel a personal connection with this team,” Rutherford said on the phone Friday. “I was there and I enjoyed my time there. I still have very strong friendships with the coaches and some of the players. But I really try not to talk to people there too much because I don’t want to get out of my own way. But those friendships will last forever and I miss them.”

It’s been nearly two years since Rutherford abruptly stepped down as general manager of the Penguins on January 27, 2021. It’s been over a year since he took his current position with the Canucks on December 10, 2021.

Over the past 13 months, Rutherford has been brimming with a franchise that has only been out once in the past seven seasons and looks set to have another long summer after this one.

About halfway through 2022-23, the Canucks have a 17-19-3 record and will need a hot streak or two in order to get into contention for a spot in the standings.

Add in the always high expectations of any team in the Canadian market and it was a daunting task for Rutherford.

“In Vancouver, we have a CFL football team but we don’t have the NFL or Major League Baseball like you do in Pittsburgh,” said Rutherford. “And the big thing here — and I totally understand that — is the frustration of owning a franchise as long as they’ve had it, to get to the[Stanley Cup]Finals a few times but not win the Cup. And then of course, it’s even worse than that going several years without being a team in playoff.

“There’s a lot of frustration and I understand that. We have an amazing fan base. They understand the game. I love being in a Canadian market. I was born in Canada. Honestly, I love being in his market.”

The Canucks are not deprived of talent. There are a few All-Stars like forwards Bo Horvat and Elias Pettersson and defenseman Quinn Hughes. But there were more dysfunctions than victories.

“I knew it was going to be a challenge,” Rutherford said. “We had some work to do to improve the team. It was probably a little more challenging than I expected trying to get the cover here. The sooner we can do it, the sooner we can move forward and improve the team.

“We’ve got a lot of good players here. We’re definitely showing signs of that at different times with this group. We haven’t fully come together as a team which gives us a chance to be more consistent. We’re working and looking at what we can do better.”

Working toward that goal with Rutherford is General Manager Patrick Alvin who joined the Canucks on January 26, 2022. Previously, Alvin worked under Rutherford with the Penguins in various front office positions, and even temporarily succeeded Rutherford as interim general manager of the Penguins until Ron was hired. Hextall appointment February 9, 2021.

“I have a lot of respect for[Alvin],” said Rutherford. “He’s really good at what he does. The roles are different for me being the boss and he (the general manager). I don’t do phone calls to other people (the general managers) and things like that. He does the day-to-day things that I would have done in the past. That’s a bit of an adjustment for me.” .and adjusting him into his new role.

“But overall, our working relationship is really good. We’ve built a very strong hockey (operations department) here. We just have to work hard. We’ll never get the quality we have to be as fast as everyone wants it to be. But I think the opportunity will be there sometime. What so that we can put together a very good team here.”

What kind of team does Rutherford think the Penguins have put together this season?

“I watch the games every night,” said Rutherford. “We’re always looking, is there someone available who can help our team? I don’t have much to say (about the Penguins) other than the fact that every team in the league other than a couple – one (Boston Bruins) – has its ups and downs during the season. I think the Penguins have a good team, I think they’ll be fine.”

An important reason to trust the Penguins is the so-called “core” of forwards Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin and defender Chris Letang, a trio who have spent 17 seasons together. That union was able to stay intact last summer when Hextall found a way to re-sign Malkin and Letang, both suspended unrestricted free agents last summer.

Theoretically, had Rutherford not strayed away, it might have been his job to figure out which direction to go with Malkin or Letang.

“I don’t want to comment on the job (current Penguins management),” Rutherford said. “I have a tough enough job to get myself into with one team let alone another. I will say I was delighted to see that the three guys were able to stay together and (potentially) finish their careers together.”

Perhaps his career should have ended in Pittsburgh, Rutherford admits. At the time of his resignation, Rutherford, 73, had worked largely from the confines of his home in the Pittsburgh area for about a year due to coronavirus risks.

“I wish I had ended up differently,” said Rutherford, who contracted and recovered from COVID-19 last March. But I was quarantined with my family for 11 months. (COVID-19), what we went through there, it’s affecting you mentally. I wasn’t in a position to have that time to move on and do my job properly. I wasn’t in the right frame of mind. This is not anyone’s fault. This is just something we’ve all had to deal with. This is not the way I wanted to leave. Maybe I should have ended my career in Pittsburgh after the success we had there. But it didn’t happen that way.”

How the rest of Rutherford’s career plays out is anyone’s guess. Even for Rutherford.

“I thought I would retire 10 years ago and I didn’t. I think I’ll probably retire in the next 10 years,” Rutherford said with a chuckle. “At this point in my life stress is hard to deal with. But I don’t do the day-to-day general manager’s work. So that should relieve some pressure. But we have our challenges here. And I feel a great responsibility in trying to improve the Canucks. I still deal with stress. If that pressure is difficult to handle at some point, that’s probably where I’ll retire somewhere.”

Seth Rorabo is a writer for the Tribune-Review. You can contact Seth via email at srorabaugh@triblive.com or via Twitter .

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