The Penguins got a third-round draft pick as compensation when the Buffalo Sabres hired Dan Bylsma to coach. Byslma was relieved of his duties following the 2013-14 season but was still under contract to Pittsburgh.
Such compensation was recently reinstituted by the NHL. It was last used in 2006.
The Penguins, however, got nothing in return when the New Jersey Devils signed Ray Shero to be their new general manager. Shero, like Bylsma, was still under contract to Pittsburgh. Penguins GM Jim Rutherford waived compensation and later said, “The rule is not as clear as it should be.”
Shero got the Devils job May 4. Byslma got the Sabres job May 28. Between the Shero and Bylsma hirings, it was announced that Boston would get draft-pick compensation from Edmonton in return for the Oilers deciding to employ ex-Bruins GM Peter Chiarelli. Chiarelli was still under contract to Boston.
That’s presumably when the rule became clear to Rutherford.
Rutherford reportedly thought there was a handshake agreement to not seek compensation when employees being hired away weren’t on active duty.
Rutherford thought wrong.
Rutherford is being excoriated for his mistake, and it is inexcusable. If he didn’t understand the rule, Rutherford should have asked for clarification. Critics haven’t yet asked for a public flogging, but anger is palpable. It’s also incredible that one of Rutherford’s record-setting three assistant GMs didn’t know.
So, bad mistake. But that’s where it ends.
The Penguins aren’t going to fire Rutherford, and shouldn’t. It’s a bad error, but not earth-shattering. You can’t start over two years in a row.
But Rutherford must do better. His first year as Penguins GM can’t be characterized as a success.
Every GM makes moves that don’t work out. Simon Despres for Ben Lovejoy was a bad trade, as Rutherford admitted. (Perhaps he shouldn’t have, given that Lovejoy is still on his roster.) Christian Ehrhoff was a bad signing. But every GM’s resume is cluttered with hockey decisions that didn’t pan out.
But you have to know the rules. The knowledge Rutherford lacked in the Shero case was accessible to all. But Rutherford didn’t have it.
You also can’t mangle the salary cap like Rutherford did.
Injuries were the primary cause of the Penguins using five defensemen (and occasionally, just 17 skaters) during the regular season’s final three weeks. But the Penguins were too close to the cap in the first place. They were in a situation where they couldn’t even call up a player making the league minimum.
Leave yourself an emergency out. Rutherford didn’t. Or make a corrective move when dominoes start falling. Rutherford didn’t.
Partly because Nick Spaling makes $2.2 million per, which is too much. Rutherford was advised by assistant GM Jason Botterill, the Penguins’ cap expert, to not take Spaling from Nashville as part of the Patric Hornqvist deal because of potential cost. But Rutherford did, then gave Spaling a new deal that overpays.
The acquisition of Daniel Winnik and a pro-rated slice of his $1.3m salary the week before the trade deadline placed the Penguins firmly in cap Purgatory. Botterill argued against that, too.
Your cap expert should make all cap decisions. That’s his job.
Rutherford is in a tough position. The best thing to do would be start rebuilding. The stars give hope, but it’s false hope given the complementary cast. Youth must be served, but a playoff run is always expected. Both aren’t possible.
Not getting a third-round pick from New Jersey is no disaster. Third-round picks don’t make or break. Well, except Kris Letang in 2005.
It’s no excuse, but the compensation rule is stupid. Getting an ex-coach or ex-GM off a team’s books should be reward enough. Bylsma and Shero were sitting at home, getting money for nothing. Buffalo and New Jersey did the Penguins a favor. If a contracted employee on active duty wants to leave, that’s a different story.
Mark Madden hosts a radio show 3-6 p.m. weekdays on WXDX-FM (105.9).
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