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DeCock: Rutherford deserves credit for past work despite current struggles

By Luke DeCock - staff columnist
ldecock@newsobserver.com
Luke has worked for The News & Observer since 2000. He covered the Carolina Hurricanes and the NHL before becoming a sports columnist in August 2008. A native of Evanston, Ill., he graduated from the University of Pennsylvania.
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The news that Carolina Hurricanes general manager Jim Rutherford is expected to step down at the end of the season is as sad as it is unsurprising. Rutherford put in a lot of time with this franchise and steered it to its greatest success. Recent struggles aside, he deserved to go out on a better note.

Unfortunately, there have been only sour notes from the Hurricanes in recent years. On their way to missing the playoffs for the seventh time in eight years since winning the Stanley Cup, it is clearly time for a change. Only the Edmonton Oilers have been less successful among the NHL’s 30 teams over that span.

Recent struggles aside, nothing can take away from the accomplishments of Rutherford’s time with the Hurricanes. He helped bring the team here, never lost faith in the future of hockey in this market and delivered the Stanley Cup in 2006, not to mention the 2011 NHL All-Star Game. He did all of that while working under severe financial constraints at almost every juncture.

It’s a tribute to Rutherford’s work in building the franchise that even this season, with a team once again headed nowhere, the Hurricanes continue to average crowds exceeding 15,000. It can’t get much worse than this, and people still want to come watch the games.

Two lockouts couldn’t derail this franchise’s growth, and as an entire generation comes of age never knowing a Triangle without an NHL hockey team, the foundation will be more solid still. Rutherford deserves credit for keeping faith in the Triangle, especially working for an absentee owner as Peter Karmanos has remained in Detroit.

Unfortunately, there’s no getting around the team’s failure to make the postseason in recent years.

Rutherford’s decisions to build around Cam Ward and, later, stockpiling Staal brothers and handing a long-term deal to Alex Semin, backfired spectacularly. That core has failed, and someone else will have to tear it down and start over, Rutherford starting the process on his way out with a six-year contract extension for Justin Faulk.

(Larry Brooks of the New York Post speculated Sunday that the Hurricanes’ two Staal brothers may end up joining Marc with the Rangers as opposed to the other way around.)

These recent struggles only underline the quality of his work earlier in his tenure, as he has often continued to work under the same difficult financial conditions the entire time, ones that go beyond merely the payroll. And that is the biggest challenge facing Rutherford’s successor, whether it will be Ron Francis or someone from outside the organization.

Clearly, the Hurricanes are broken, from the top down, starting with the owner. The hockey side of the operation needs a complete rebuild, from the front office to evaluation to drafting to developing to scouting to cap management.

Can an internal candidate do that? Can anyone do that on a limited budget?

That remains to be seen, but if it is Francis, don’t sell him short. Some of the players he has endorsed haven’t worked out – Zach Boychuk and Riley Nash head that list – but the results may be different if he has the final say.

When Rod Brind’Amour took over for Francis as captain, he was already a leader by example but had yet to demonstrate the kind of vocal leadership that would suggest he would thrive in that role. Two years later, the Hurricanes wouldn’t have won the Stanley Cup without Brind’Amour’s leadership, both vocal and silent.

Given a chance to lead, he excelled. The same may yet be said of Francis as an executive.

DeCock: ldecock@newsobserver.com, @LukeDeCock, 919-829-8947
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