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Saturday, June 7, 2014

Butchering the GM Process by @BrianK_PI

It's been a crazy three weeks for the Pittsburgh Penguins. And crazy is putting things nicely. The moves made by upper management have been unconventional, to say the least. And again, unconventional is putting things nicely. Very nicely. The offseason so far has been a series of moves that calls into question whether those making the decisions have any clear vision of what they want things to look like.

Whether Ray Shero did or did not deserve to be fired, and there are solid arguments on both sides, it should be clear to anyone that the decision to fire the reigning General Manager of the Year needed to be accompanied by a concise vision for the future. It's hard to argue that this was the case. While Dave Morehouse was undoubtedly trying to convey a thoroughness of process during the press conference when he stated that the team "had an original list of 30", 22 of whom they talked with before interviewing 9 and conducting final interviews with 4, it also suggests that there was no real plan in place. That firing Shero and retaining Bylsma to serve as a piñata for the new GM hire certainly reeks of a knee jerk reaction as opposed to being apart of a thoughtful and calculated process.

If the objective was to keep Dan Bylsma away from the Washington Capitals, then obviously that objective was met as the Capitals hired someone else. Of course, that someone else is Barry Trotz, who is more experienced, a better fit, and objectively a more talented and seasoned head coach than Dan Bylsma. If that was the objective, the Capitals simply hired someone better anyways. It was a wasted effort that left a big black eye on an organization that prides itself on its image and reputation. Regardless of how poor of a fit Dan Bylsma turned out to be in the end, he's still a well respected and extremely well liked individual around the league. Ray Shero had been known to work with fringe roster players to find them a good landing spot as he entertained offers for their services. That was a level of class the team would have been wise to retain after relieving him of his duties. It certainly would have been appropriate for a man who won them a Stanley Cup.

Regardless of the debacle made in the cleaning house process, the team needed to move forward with its GM search. There should have been one main goal in the hiring process: identify the best candidate and give him the job. In hiring Jim Rutherford, the team failed to meet this simple goal. If reports are true that the team first offered the position to Pierre McGuire, then the team failed even more. There's no doubt that Jim Rutherford is experienced, but the problem is that experienced doesn't necessarily mean qualified. While changes are being made because the Penguins haven't reached the Stanley Cup Final in 5 years, the Hurricanes haven't even made the playoffs in 5 years. They've missed the playoffs in 9 of the past 11 years. They won a Stanley Cup, but it was following a season where the team finished with 76 points and was followed with an 88 point season. There's little over the past decade plus to suggest that championship was more than just capturing lightning in a bottle.

Rutherford has been hamstrung by spending restrictions, but his resume doesn't necessarily suggest that he'd be a great choice even with Pittsburgh's resources. This is the guy who trade Brandon Sutter, Brian Dumolin, and the 8th overall draft pick to acquire a player in Jordan Staal who everyone in the league knew he'd be able to sign in free agency the following offseason. It wasn't a move he made to help put his team over the top; Rutherford added Staal to a 82 point team, one that went on to finish on a 72 point pace in the lockout shortened season and with 82 points last year. There wasn't any need for urgency, yet Rutherford was still comfortable dealing 3 good assets. This isn't to mention that when he's had the ability to spend money, he's made moves like giving Alexander Semin a 1 year, $7 million deal when no one else wanted to go anywhere near that neighborhood then following it up with a 5 year, $7 million AAV extension. Semin put up 42 points this past year and hasn't topped 60 points since the 2009-10 season. He gave Tomas Kaberle a 3 year, $4.25 million AAV contract in 2011. Kaberle was out of the league a year later. Regardless of the circumstances, he hasn't done anywhere near enough to suggest he'll excel in Pittsburgh.

Throughout the search, it was reported that the Penguins didn't want to lose Jason Botterill, Tom Fitzgerald, or Bill Guerin during the changeover. With Rutherford's hiring, it's abundantly clear that he's little more than a babysitter keeping the seat warm for one of those three, most likely Botterill. What's unclear is whether or not the Pens decided heading into the process that they were keeping Botterill and structuring the search around that, or if they were actually interested in bringing in the best candidate. Is Botterill a better candidate than a Paul Fenton, a Julien BriseBois, or a Norm MacIver? Is Botterill after a 2-3 year apprenticeship really better than going with a Fenton, a BriseBois, or a MacIver now? Were these questions even asked?

With cleaning house and having as talented of a team as the Pittsburgh Penguins do, it should have been vitally important to have strong vision for the future to put in place. But the team neither cleaned house nor put a strong vision for the future in place. They hired a lame duck GM in Rutherford, no matter how much the move is labelled as a mentor and a groomer. The team needs to hire a new head coach. Is that decision going to be Rutherford's call and someone who embodies his vision of what the team needs? Are the free agent signings going to be in his vision of where the team should go? How about the draft? If he's keeping the seat warm for Botterill, how much of a say will Botterill have in these decisions? If little, is it really a good idea to saddle the presumed "GM in waiting" with a coaching staff and 2 years of roster moves that don't necessarily align with his vision? If Botterill has a strong voice in the matter, why bother bringing in Rutherford? Botterill under Shero was deeply immersed in the intricacies of the salary cap and was negotiating contracts and helping with trades as part of his Assistant GM duties. If he's deemed the man of the future, why not make him the man of the present?

Here's the thing: Jim Rutherford could have easily been brought into the organization while giving Botterill the GM position that he deserves. Hiring Rutherford as Senior VP of Hockey Operations would have allowed him a position to mentor Botterill (along with Fitzgerald and Guerin) while giving Botterill the authority to mold the team in his vision and start laying out his plan. More importantly, it would have given the Penguins more control over keeping Botterill in Pittsburgh, which has been tacitly acknowledged as the reasoning behind the current moves. GM Botterill wouldn't be able to entertain vacant general manager positions across the league; Associate GM Botterill can. Associate GM Botterill could very well decide next season that he's tired of playing second fiddle, that he's ready to run his own team, and, if mutual interest is present, jump at an offer for a vacant GM position.

The problem with this plan is that in Dave Morehouse's vision of the Penguins executive structure, there can be no room for a Senior VP of Hockey Operations - or anything similar. Authority needs to be consolidated into one man's hands, and that one man needs to be Dave Morehouse. For whatever reason the Penguins decided to go with Rutherford instead of Botterill, and hopefully it wasn't because of the perceived backlash of promoting from within, the team has put a structure in place that lacks vision and an eye towards the future. The team doesn't want to waste a year of Crosby and Malkin's primes, but why are they willing to gamble several of those prime years on the hope that this not only works but transitions seamlessly?

It's entirely possible that the original plan was giving Shero an ultimatum about what needed to change, including getting rid of his head coach, and have him to continue to oversee Botterill, either with having Shero at the helm to turn things around or, barring that, giving Botterill more time to learn. Possibly Shero threw a wrench in that plan by refusing the fire Bylsma. Even in this scenario the Penguins would have had no clue about Plan B, but is it really likely that the team would fire him for not firing Bylsma, yet not get rid of the coach they wanted to be fired at the same time? Either way, there seems to be little clear vision of the future. And making a transition like this with no strong plan for the future is a recipe for disaster. Is it possible that this setup works, and Rutherford gets the team back on track before smoothly transitioning to Botterill? Absolutely. Is that the most likely outcome? That's very debatable. Is this the best move to make for a solid future? That question is the problem. Hopefully these moves work out for the team, but with no clear plan in place it's more crossing fingers and hoping than setting things in movement and being confident about the future.

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