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Jim Rutherford has long been the dean of Southeast Division general managers. Since taking over the GM’s seat in 1994, he has presided over three division titles, two conference championships and the 2006 Stanley Cup champions, while being named executive of the year by the Sporting News both years that his team made the Stanley Cup Final. Rutherford and Washington Capitals GM George McPhee are the two rocks of stability in the division, and that loyalty has been repaid in the form of eight combined division titles out of 11 awarded since the division was created in 1998.
But in the last couple of months, the corner offices in the other three division teams’ front offices have changed rather substantially, and Rutherford and McPhee now face their first sustained challenges from the other members of the division. To this point, they’ve enjoyed a monopoly on the division that’s only been challenged by one team, at most, at any given time.
The Florida Panthers have now gone nine straight years without making the postseason. Since making the Stanley Cup Final in 1996 under Bryan Murray, the Panthers have fallen into a slow decline that bottomed out in 2006 when then-GM Mike Keenan shipped Roberto Luongo to Vancouver for seven games of Todd Bertuzzi and some spare parts (with apologies to Alex Auld and Bryan Allen, “spare parts” might be a bit generous). In a bizarre coincidence, Keenan resigned three months later to be replaced by coach Jacques Martin, who assumed both roles and did his best to keep the Panthers mired in mediocrity. Martin, of course, was last seen leading the Montreal Canadiens to an improbable berth in the Eastern Conference final.
The Tampa Bay Lightning posed the most long-term challenge to the Carolina/Washington superiority, with two straight division titles starting in 2003 and a Stanley Cup in 2004. However, those glory years were sandwiched in between some seriously poor play, including the only time in NHL history a team has lost 50 games for four straight years and another year at dead last in the league in 2007-08.
And then there’s the Atlanta Thrashers. Dear Lord. Since entering the NHL in 1999, the Thrashers have yet to win a playoff series, or even a playoff game (their sole appearance led to a sweep by the New York Rangers in 2007, a year in which they won a fluke division title), they’ve used first-round picks on the likes of Patrik Stefan and Boris Valabik, they’ve made some awful trades (Braydon Coburn for Alexei Zhitnik? Yep, that happened), and they sold their only indisputable franchise player, Ilya Kovalchuk, for ten cents on the dollar at the 2010 trade deadline. The only consistent piece? Don Waddell, who was GM from day one until he was bumped up to team president in April. (The Atlanta Thrashers: where sustained mediocrity earns you a promotion to president! Get your season tickets today!)
However, in the last month, the division has seen a radical readjustment, and Rutherford will need to be on his game.
In April, when Waddell was promoted, Rick Dudley was named his replacement. Dudley was plucked from the Chicago Blackhawks in 2009, and in case you hadn’t noticed, the Blackhawks have done pretty well for themselves lately. Dudley was assistant GM to Dale Tallon, and helped engineer a turnaround for the ages, from dead last as recently as 2004 to 20,000+ sellouts and two straight appearances in the conference final. Dudley’s track record also includes rebuilding the Lightning from rock bottom in the early 2000s, laying the groundwork for Jay Feaster to build a Stanley Cup champion, and the Thrashers job is his third within the Southeast; he also ran the Panthers before heading to Chicago in 2005. Dudley was a flop with the Panthers (but, then again, who wasn’t?), but his time with the Blackhawks has rejuvenated his career and made him a hot commodity among GMs. He was hired to be the heir apparent if Waddell fell flat on his face again; he did, and here we are.
Meanwhile, on the other coast of Florida, when Martin left to head to Quebec his replacement was assistant GM Randy Sexton, who in his only previous turn as a GM he oversaw a historically bad 30-109-15 Ottawa Senators team in the early 1990s. It should surprise no one that Sexton was unsuccessful in getting the Panthers back to the postseason, so it was no surprise that Sexton was out of work after one season as Panthers GM. Who replaced Sexton was a candidate that was way out of the Panthers’ comfort zone. Dale Tallon, the man Dudley reported to in Chicago, was named Panthers GM last week, and brings with him the most impressive resume of any Panthers GM since Mike Keenan. Tallon is widely regarded as the brains behind the Blackhawks’ success, and despite losing his job thanks to a paperwork snafu that momentarily made three young Hawks players unrestricted free agents Tallon was one of the most sought-after GM candidates in the league. His hire immediately upgrades the Panthers’ front office, and gives some much-needed respect to an organization that hasn’t earned any in the last nine years.
As for the Lightning, when Jay Feaster was shoved out the door in 2008 by the gong show otherwise known as the Oren Koules/Len Barrie administration, the destruction of the franchise was complete. Newly-minted GM Brian Lawton did his best to handle the circus, but when Jeff Vinik took over ownership he put Lawton out of his misery. Then, today, Vinik hired Red Wings legend Steve Yzerman as Lightning GM, a stroke of brilliance that has immediately changed the narrative in Tampa. No longer is the Lightning front office the Keystone Kops in suits; now, they have a Hall of Fame forward running their hockey operation and have taken a huge step toward restoring the respectability that the Lightning had earned by winning the Stanley Cup and destroyed by severe incompetence from the owner’s suite. Comparisons of Yzerman to Wayne Gretzky aren’t accurate, since while Gretzky apprenticed under no one before being named to an executive position with the Phoenix Coyotes, Yzerman served in the front office of the most successful NHL franchise of the past fifteen years.
What does all this mean for Rutherford? The immediate reaction is that no longer will the Southeast be a division of pushovers. The proven track records of Tallon and Dudley, combined with the respect Yzerman has earned over nearly 30 years of service to the NHL in some capacity, immediately make all three destinations more attractive than they were just a few months ago. Rutherford has proven in the past that he’s able to adapt to changing forces at work around him, but this is the biggest upheaval the division has seen since its inception. Nearly overnight, the division got a whole lot tougher, and it starts in the general managers’ suites. While no one is expecting Atlanta, Florida or Tampa Bay to contend for the Stanley Cup next season, the pedigree of success brought to all three franchises by their new GMs will trickle down and make all three teams tougher to play against.
Rutherford will need to be proactive if the Canes are to stay among the cream of the Southeast crop. For the first time in a long time, there will be more than one team nipping at the heels of the Canes and Caps, and now it’s up to Rutherford and McPhee to keep their teams in the position they’ve been accustomed to occupying.