In the summer of 2017, Pittsburgh Penguins general manager Jim Rutherford should have been a happy and content man. After all, he had just guided his team to back to back Stanley Cup championships and he looked to have the pieces in place for a three-peat the following season. In reality though, Rutherford was fuming. He had just seen teams like the Nashville Predators, Ottawa Senators, Washington Capitals and Columbus Blue Jackets take liberties with his team and he wasn’t going to take it anymore. He paid a hefty price to the St. Louis Blues to acquire enforcer Ryan Reaves, whom he felt added some much needed physicality to the Penguins’ roster.
Flash forward to the Penguins’ second round series against the Capitals this post season and with Reaves now out of the picture (traded to the Vegas Golden Knights as part of the Derick Brassard deal), the Caps once again took liberties with the Penguins. Most notably, Caps forward Tom Wilson seemed to be taking runs at EVERYONE on the ice. He ended up obliterating Penguins forward Zach Aston-Reese, earning himself a three game suspension from NHL Player Safety:
Immediately after the hit Wilson was confronted by Penguins giant Jamie Oleksiak who wanted a fight, but Wilson repeatedly declined. This was enough to send Rutherford off the deep end, who just today opened up about the hit, the departure of Reaves and his opinion of Wilson as a player.
“When Jamie challenged Wilson, he couldn’t run quick enough to get away from him,” Rutherford told the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette’s Jason Mackey this morning.
“Until, of course, the referees get in close, then [Wilson] comes back and says something to him.”
It’s doubly frustrating for Rutherford because when they elected to trade Reaves in a three-way deal with Vegas and the Senators, he believed that Oleksiak could serve as Reaves’ replacement. The only problem is, as the old saying goes, you need two to tango.
“We have a guy who can do it,” Rutherford said talking about Oleksiak, “but when you talk about that style of player, it’s hard to go after a player because the referees get in or some guys go the other way when it comes time to having a fight.”
In other words, it’s all good and well to have an enforcer, but if other teams are going to chicken out then what’s the point? In the case of Wilson against the Penguins, retribution came in the form of a three-game suspension, but unfortunately for the Penguins it just wasn’t enough. The Penguins’ season is over, while Wilson and his Capitals attempt to push for a Game 7 tonight in the Eastern Conference Final. Who knows? Maybe Wilson will finally meet his match in the Stanley Cup Final against Reaves?