Jim Rutherford wishes his Penguins tenure ‘had ended different’

It won’t be a homecoming for Jim Rutherford.

That’s because he won’t 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, will be involved in scouting meetings and, as president of hockey operations, Rutherford oversees all of that.

But Tuesday’s meeting clearly will represent a vivid connection given Rutherford’s history with the Penguins. As general manager, he directed the Penguins to their two most recent Stanley Cup titles in 2016 and ’17.

“I feel a personal connection with that team,” Rutherford said by phone Friday. “I was there and enjoyed my time there. I still have very strong friendships there 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 lane. But those friendships will last forever, and I miss them.”

It’s been almost two years since Rutherford abruptly quit as Penguins general manager Jan. 27, 2021. And it’s been just over a year since he took over in his current capacity with the Canucks on Dec. 10, 2021.

Over the past 13 months, Rutherford has had his hands full with a franchise that has made the playoffs only once in the past seven seasons and seems destined to have another long summer after this season.

Almost at the midway point for 2022-23, the Canucks have a 17-19-3 record and would need a hot streak or two to even get into contention for a wild-card spot.

Add in the always immense expectations of any team in a Canadian market, and the task has been daunting for Rutherford.

“In Vancouver, we have a CFL football team, but we don’t have NFL or Major League Baseball like you do in Pittsburgh,” Rutherford said. “And a big thing here — and I totally understand it — is the frustration of having a franchise for as long as they have, getting to the (Stanley Cup) Finals a few times but not winning the Cup. And then of course, even worse than that, is a number of years without being a playoff team.

“There’s a lot of frustration, and I understand it. We have a wonderful fan base. They understand the game. I like being in a Canadian market. I was born and raised in Canada. Quite frankly, I like being in this market.”

The Canucks aren’t bereft of talent. There are a handful of All-Stars such as forwards Bo Horvat, Elias Pettersson and defenseman Quinn Hughes. But there has been more dysfunction than wins.

“I knew it was going to be a challenge,” Rutherford said. “We had some work to do to improve the team. It’s probably been a little bigger challenge than I expected in trying to unravel the cap situation here. The sooner we can do that, the sooner we can move forward and improve the team.

“We have a lot of good players here. We certainly show signs of that at different times with this group. We haven’t totally come together as a team, which would give 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 Patrik Allvin who joined the Canucks on Jan. 26, 2022. Previously, Allvin worked under Rutherford with the Penguins in various front office roles and even temporarily succeeded Rutherford as the Penguins’ interim general manager until Ron Hextall was hired Feb. 9, 2021.

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

“But overall, our working relationship is real good. We’ve built a very strong hockey (operations department) here. We just have to work hard. We’ll never get as good as we should be as soon as everybody wants. But I think the opportunity is going to be there at some point in time that we can put a pretty good team together here.”

Rutherford acknowledges his career probably should have finished in Pittsburgh as well. At the time of his resignation, Rutherford, 73, had largely operated from the confines of his Pittsburgh-area home for nearly a year because of the risks of covid-19.

“Oh, I wish I had ended different,” said Rutherford, who contracted and recovered from covid-19 last March. “But I had been quarantined with my family for 11 months. (Covid-19), what we went through there, it affects you mentally. I wasn’t in a position at that time to go forward and do my job properly. I wasn’t in the right mental state of mind.

“This is not anybody’s fault. This is just something that we have all had to deal with. That’s not the way I would have wanted to leave. I probably, probably should have ended my career in Pittsburgh after the success that we had there. But it didn’t play out that way.”

Seth Rorabaugh is a Tribune-Review staff writer. You can contact Seth by email at srorabaugh@triblive.com or via Twitter .

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