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Business as usual for Rutherford despite Penguins’ ownership questions

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Chaz Palla | Trib Total Media
Penguins general manager Jim Rutherford speaks to the media during a news conference Tuesday, April 28, 2015, at Consol Energy Center.

It’s a real possibility the Penguins enter the NHL Draft and free agency while on the open market — or with a new owner.

But that won’t alter the team’s approach or, it hopes, how free agents perceive Pittsburgh as a potential place of employment, general manager Jim Rutherford said.

“We have great owners, and they may well still be the owners for some time in one way or another,” Rutherford said Friday. “If not, as far as investing what you need to invest in a major sports team, the franchise will be very stable.”

Rutherford’s remarks came less than 48 hours after the team announced co-owners Ron Burkle and Mario Lemieux retained Morgan Stanley “to oversee a review of their strategic options.”

Burkle and Lemieux have owned the team for the past 16 years — the longest tenure in franchise history — but the direction the Penguins are headed has convinced both to at least explore their options.

Part of Rutherford’s confidence stems from the Lemieux Sports Complex, the team’s $70-plus-million training facility in Cranberry that will open in August. There’s also strong local interest — 377 consecutive sellouts and above-average TV and merchandise numbers — among fans.

“I think it’s more about, ‘Do (free agents) feel the core is here,’ which it is,” Rutherford said. “We have a great city to play in and the best facilities of anyone in the league with the opening of our new practice facility.

“That should be very appealing to a free agent.”

Free agency begins July 1.

Player agent Neil Sheehy said who owns the team or whether that could change would have no impact on a potential pitch to play in Pittsburgh.

“Players want to play hockey and win,” Sheehy said. “Pittsburgh has those elements.

“I’ve dealt with teams before when they’re up for sale. I don’t think it’s a big issue.”

Still, former GM and current NHL Network analyst Craig Button said the question inevitably will come up.

Rutherford is uniquely equipped to handle it, having handled a similar situation in Carolina.

“When you’ve expressed an interest in selling your team, prospective players are going to ask the question,” Button said. “But while agents and players can ask the question, (Rutherford) has been through ownership changes and relocation.

“He can reassure any potential player coming in, a free agent or maybe someone waiving a no-movement clause. It has multiple tentacles in terms of what you have to deal with, but I don’t see something like this being a problem for the Penguins. Jim is uniquely qualified on multiple fronts to handle this.”

Rutherford said he has been reassured of his directive to spend to the ceiling of the NHL’s salary cap, which this past season was $69 million and should fall somewhere between that figure and $71 million for the 2015-16 season.

The Penguins have nine unrestricted free agents who cost them $15.45 million in 2014-15. The Penguins also could swing a trade for a top-six winger, something Rutherford has said is more appealing to him than trying to find one in a weak free agent pool.

Regardless of how things fall, there’s an ardent fan base and a team committed to winning, and that resonates with players, Button said.

“We’re not talking about a franchise that has had challenges attracting fans or sponsors,” Button said. “This is a gem franchise in the National Hockey League, with players that are high-end.

“I don’t think there will be too much convincing that will have to go on.”

Jason Mackey is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. Reach him at [email protected] or via Twitter @Mackey_Trib.

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