Last Five Years Shouldn’t Diminish Rutherford’s Legacy

Until Monday, Jim Rutherford had been the only general manager the Carolina Hurricanes had ever known. But after a fifth straight season of missing the playoffs, changes were promised — and expected by an increasingly agitated fanbase. Rutherford was the first, yielding the office to Ron Francis and ending a reign of 20 years that had its ups and downs, though it’s likely he won’t be the last.

Taken as a whole, it’s easy to say Rutherford’ tenure was underwhelming. His teams made the playoffs just 5 times in 20 years. The first two resulted in first round knockouts to the Boston Bruins and New Jersey Devils, but the last three earned him a pair of well-deserved “Executive of the Year” awards.

In 2002, after being a middling team all year, the Hurricanes squeaked into the playoffs in consecutive seasons for the first time since the Hartford Whalers accomplished the feat in 1990-92. They ended the season with just 91 points, but managed to spark something that led to the franchise’s first Stanley Cup Finals berth.

And it almost didn’t happen.

Paul Maurice, himself on the job for seven years at that point, clung to his position by a thread. Many called for his head, and “Mo Must Go” softly began to make its first rounds in early December. But Rutherford held serve, and the results paid off.

An early January trade saw All-Star defenseman Sandis Ozolinsh sent to the Florida Panthers, a divisional rival, in exchange for Kevyn Adams, Bret Hedican, and a second round pick, and it would prove to be the boost the team needed. Though they fell in five games to a Hall of Fame laden Detroit Red Wings team, the exposure brought legitimacy to hockey in the Triangle.

Though the team followed up their second successful season with a league-worst 61 points — their lowest total under Rutherford — it paved the way for the ‘Canes to draft their next generation franchise player: Eric Staal.

It’s unfair to say Staal simply fell into Rutherford’s lap; he wasn’t the consensus best forward in the deepest draft in NHL history. After losing the lottery to the Pittsburgh Penguins, Rutherford still had a choice between Staal and power forward Nathan Horton. While Horton has had an impressive career in his own right, the choice wasn’t a slam dunk. But the correct call was made.

In late 2004, after another uninspiring year, Rutherford finally pulled the trigger pulled on Maurice. It wasn’t an easy decision, as the two had become close friends, but it brought Peter Laviolette to Carolina, whose up-tempo offensive style would turned out to mesh considerably well with the post-lockout NHL.

Rutherford took advantage of the new buyout rules provided by the CBA, picking up Ray Whitney for pennies on the dollar. He also brought in Cory Stillman, Martin Gerber, and Frantisek Kaberle that offseason — all of whom proved to be shrewd, under the radar moves.

The ‘Canes didn’t come roaring out of the gate when the league resumed play, dropping their opener 5-2 to the Tampa Bay Lightning, the defending Stanley Cup Champions. But the following game’s debut of Cam Ward — another Rutherford draft pick at the end of the first round in 2002 — showed just what the team was capable of.

In the franchise’s first shootout, Ward stopped Mario Lemieux, Ziggy Palffy, and mega-hyped rookie Sidney Crosby en route to a 3-2 victory. Over their next 16 games, they went 13-2-1, which included a victory over the NHL’s last undefeated team, the Ottawa Senators.

Then they never looked back.

(James Guillory-US PRESSWIRE)

(James Guillory-US PRESSWIRE)

Staal scored 45 goals that year and broke 100 points for the first time in team history, and the first since Francis did it as a Whaler in 1989-90. The Hurricanes tore through the regular season, narrowly missing out on the top seed in the Eastern Conference to the Senators by a single point.

It all threatened to be taken away, however, after an ailing Gerber and some lackluster defense led to a 0-2 first round deficit against the Montreal Canadiens. But that’s when the world truly met Ward.

Behind their 22-year-old rookie goaltender, the ‘Canes rallied to defeat the Canadiens, and dismantled the Devils, winners of 15 straight. A grueling battle with the Buffalo Sabres in the Eastern Conference Finals went seven games, and a Jochen Hecht wraparound goal with two seconds left in the second period had the Hurricanes facing their first true test of adversity: the wrong side of a 2-1 score.

Months before that year’s trade deadline, Rutherford knew he had something special, but something was still missing. No team is perfect. In his most aggressive move to date, Rutherford moved all-in on the season, acquiring Doug Weight for a host of draft picks. All said, a modest price.

With fewer than 300 career goals, Weight wasn’t brought to Carolina for his scoring prowess. But that made no difference, and his marker 94 seconds into the final frame tied the game. After Brind’Amour’s go-ahead goal with less than nine minutes left and Justin Williams’ insurance tally in the last minute, the Hurricanes were off to their second Finals appearance in four seasons.

This time, the ‘Canes came into the championship round as heavy favorites against the eighth seeded Edmonton Oilers. But when has anything ever been easy for this team?

Game 1 required a three-goal comeback. Game 4, in the hostile Edmonton environment, was a hard-fought defensive battle that saw Mark Recchi, another deadline pickup by Rutherford, score the winner. In Game 5, with a chance to clinch the Cup on home ice, a Stillman giveaway led to Fernando Pisani’s overtime winner, and another trip back to the Northwest, where the Hurricanes were trounced 4-0 in Game 6.

Everything hinged on Game 7 at the RBC Center in Raleigh. If the ‘Canes collapsed, everything Rutherford did that year would be for naught. But they didn’t.

Aaron Ward opened the scoring at 1:26 of the first period, and Kaberle’s powerplay marker in the second was all the margin they needed. A few highlight-reel saves by Ward and a Williams empty net later, and the Hurricanes had their first Stanley Cup in franchise history.

The win doesn’t happen without Rutherford’s excellent budget management, and knowing when to push his luck. The Hurricanes got their share of bounces along the way, but at the end of the day, they were the last team left standing on June 19, 2006.

Though the next few years wouldn’t be kind, the ‘Canes — and Maurice, a midseason replacement for Laviolette — made their return to the playoffs in 2009. That year provided a pair of exhilarating Game 7 victories, including Scott Walker’s vindicated overtime winner in Boston, before bowing out in four to the eventual champion Pittsburgh Penguins in the Eastern Conference Finals.

Rutherford hasn’t been perfect. In the NHL, no one is. His depth drafting has left a lot to be desired, and names like Jeff Heerema, Nikos Tselios, and Igor Knyazev still make Caniacs cringe. But he had an eye for developed talent, and was among the best when it came to trading.

Under Rutherford’s watch, fans enjoyed some of the highest of highs the NHL could provide: Jokinen at the horn, the “Molson Miracle”, the “Shock at the Rock”, and, most importantly, bringing the first professional championship to North Carolina.

Now it’s Francis’ turn to etch his own legacy into Carolina lore. But none of it would have been possible without Rutherford.

About The Author

Andrew Luistro graduated from Appalachian State University. An avid sports fan, he began beat writing for the Sunbelt Hockey Journal, part of The Hockey Writers Network, with a focus on the Carolina Hurricanes. Andrew also actively follows the Boston Red Sox and Carolina Panthers, among other teams. Follow him on Twitter @ndrewL7