How Jim Rutherford is benefiting from trade he made before he was Penguins GM

On Wednesday Pittsburgh Penguins general manager Jim Rutherford was announced as one of the three finalists for the NHL's GM of the year award along with Jim Nill of the Dallas Stars and Brian MacLellan of the Washington Capitals. He likely received that honor because of the several moves he made over the past year to acquire Phil Kessel, Nick Bonino, Eric Fehr, Carl Hagelin and Trevor Daley to help re-shape the look of the roster.

Those moves are a big reason the team is currently playing in the Eastern Conference Finals.

There is another significant move he made that is making a huge impact for this Penguins team. What stands out about the trade is he made it two years before he was even the GM of the team or had any idea he might ever be in charge of the team.

Here is how it happened.

1. The trade. It was the 2012 NHL draft (held in Pittsburgh), and the Penguins, then under the direction of general manager Ray Shero, had a huge decision to make regarding one of their core players, center Jordan Staal. Staal was entering the final year of his contract and was set to become an unrestricted free agent following the 2012-13 season. With the two sides unable to work out a new long-term extension for a number of reasons, the Penguins made the decision it would be better to trade him for what they could rather than risk losing him for nothing at the end of the season.

That is where Jim Rutherford, who was at the time still the long-time general manager of the Carolina Hurricanes, comes in.

The Hurricanes seemed like a logical landing spot for Staal because of the assets they had in their organization (a young center, defense prospects, a top-10 draft pick) and the fact Staal's brother, Eric, was still the franchise building block.

They turned out to be the only potential landing spot.

On the night of the first round, Shero and Rutherford agreed to a blockbuster trade that would send Staal to the Hurricanes in exchange for center Brandon Sutter, defense prospect Brian Dumoulin and the No. 8 pick in the 2012 draft which the Penguins would use to select Derrick Pouliot.

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Brian Dumoulin is now one of the Pittsburgh Penguins' best defensive players. USATSI

2. Brian Dumoulin is now the Penguins best defensive defenseman. It's taken a few years, but the trade has really started to pay off for the Penguins.

Let's start with the initial players involved. At the time, Dumoulin seemed to be the least talked about player in the trade because Sutter was supposed to fill Staal's role on the team's third-line, and Pouliot, as a highly-touted top-10 pick, was supposed to be a potential top-pairing defenseman that could bring a significant amount of offense to the lineup. It has not quite worked out that way for him to this point.

Dumoulin on the other hand has spent the 2015-16 season turning into one of the Penguins' most reliable defensemen. He did not score a goal during the regular season and had only 17 assists in what is his first opportunity as a full-time player, but he has been an almost perfect replacement for the role Paul Martin played in their top-four after he left the team in free agency to join the San Jose Sharks.

Dumoulin appeared in all 82 games for the Penguins, is playing 20 minutes a night in the playoffs, and finished the regular season as one of their best defensive players.

He was on the ice for only 1.88 goals against per 60 minutes of 5-on-5 play during the regular season. That was tops among all Penguins defensemen. The Penguins only allowed 49 total shot attempts per 60 minutes with him on the ice, a number that was also the best among Penguins defenders (he was the only one under 50 attempts per 60 minutes). He was a 53 percent Corsi player even though he started most of his shifts in the defensive zone. That was third on the team behind only Kris Letang and Trevor Daley.

Because he is not a big offensive player or a physical player he is the type of defenseman that can easily get lost in the shuffle, but he is almost always in the right spot, has a knack for breaking up plays with his stick and is just an overall rock solid player in his own end of the ice. He really excels when it comes to breaking up opponents rushes at the blue line.

3. How it led to Nick Bonino and the HBK line. While Dumoulin turned out to be the prize of the initial trade, Brandon Sutter was at times underwhelming with the Penguins. He scored some goals in the playoffs for them in his two years with the team, but he never seemed to be the defensive player the Penguins wanted and was in no way a replacement for Staal. If anything, his play on their third line illustrated a lot of the Penguins' problems over the past few years.

Before the 2015-16 season, Jim Rutherford traded Sutter for a second time, with a second team, when he sent him to the Vancouver Canucks for Nick Bonino, defenseman Adam Clendening, and a 2016 second-round draft pick.

That trade also helped give the Penguins just enough salary cap space to sign Eric Fehr in free agency the very same day.

Clendening never really fit with the Penguins and was eventually included as a throw-in to the trade that saw the Penguins flip David Perron for Hagelin in the middle of the season.

Bonino and Hagelin, of course, now make up two-thirds of what is one of the NHL's best and most popular lines at the moment along with Kessel. Bonino has basically turned into everything the Penguins hoped Sutter would be when they made the initial Staal trade. A complete two-way center that can help create a dominant third line that other teams cannot match up with.

4. The full aftermath of the trade. It is important to note from a Carolina perspective that Jordan Staal is still a really good player, something that tends to get lost quite a bit. He is a 20-goal, 50-point center that always posts dominant possession numbers. That is an extremely valuable asset and he is still probably the best individual player involved in the initial trade in 2012. So it's not like Carolina was ripped off here. But he is also very expensive at $6 million per year for several more years, a contract the Penguins really would not be able to fit under the salary cap and still do all of the other things they did to assemble this current roster.

As a result of that trade today, they have Dumoulin, Nick Bonino, Pouliot and a 2016 second-round draft pick. That has turned out to be a huge haul.

Hagelin is also a branch in that trade chain because of Clendening being a throw-in to that trade (remember: Clendening was acquired as part of the Bonino-Sutter trade). Basically, it put a lot of wheels in motion for several moves that have transformed the Penguins lineup.

When Rutherford made the original Staal trade he no doubt hoped it would one day help put him in a position where he would be competing for a Stanley Cup.

He probably just did not imagine it would be in Pittsburgh.

CBS Sports Writer

Adam Gretz has been writing about the NHL and taking an analytical approach to the game since the start of the 2008 season. A member of the PHWA since 2015, he has spent more than three years covering... Full Bio

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