Faces of the Penguins’ future: Guerin, Fitzgerald and Botterill
Jim Rutherford, presiding over a work in progress as the Penguins’ new general manager, learned something Friday about the men he will mentor.
“It just makes you a better person, what these guys have gone through,” Rutherford said after meeting with Jason Botterill and Bill Guerin and talking over the phone with Tom Fitzgerald. “Things were just in limbo. For people that can handle that, for guys that were candidates for the job that I got and to sit in a meeting with me and talk about their feelings about what has happened and what we’re doing going forward, I’m very, very impressed.”
Rutherford’s three top employees are holdovers from the staff of Ray Shero, who was fired May 16. Rutherford has identified each as a potential candidate to replace him in two or three years.
They want the job, too.
For now, in roles that lack specifics, Botterill is the associate general manager and will report to Rutherford. Assistant general managers Fitzgerald and Guerin will report to Botterill.
A third assistant GM — likely with expertise in analytics — could be hired, Rutherford said.
Under Shero, Dan MacKinnon had added analytics analysis to one of his many duties as director of player personnel. A hallmark under Shero was the opportunity for his staffers to “do a lot of different things,” Guerin said.
Guerin, Fitzgerald and Botterill said they hope not to be pigeonholed in their new roles. Here is a look at these men and what they bring:
Seven years ago, during a meeting with Shero and then-assistant general manager Chuck Fletcher, Botterill laid out the parameters for former defenseman Ryan Whitney’s contract. The Penguins used that model — a salary-cap friendly, six-year deal worth $24 million — to sign Whitney, and Shero created a position for Botterill, who had worked with NHL Central Registry.
Within two years, Botterill had replaced a departed Fletcher as Shero’s assistant. Even by then, Botterill was viewed by league brass as somewhat of a salary-cap genius, somebody who could manage the Penguins’ cap and position them to take advantage of other clubs’ future problems.
Botterill, 38, has a master’s degree in business administration from Michigan. He is a former first-round pick whose playing career was cut short because of concussions.
Over the past five seasons, he took on roles other than cap specialist. He managed AHL affiliate Wilkes-Barre/Scranton, scouted amateur players and negotiated most of the Penguins’ NHL contracts. The past two seasons, he began helping with implementation of new drafting procedures that helped the Penguins identify players such as defenseman Olli Maatta.
His recent interview with the Penguins was his first in-person one for a general manager job.
Within the past year, Botterill also was approached about openings with Buffalo and Vancouver. Shero joked that he was relieved when Buffalo did not hire Botterill and said he wished reporters would “stop writing about Jason because I don’t want to lose him.”
Shero also advised Botterill to hold out for the right job as Fletcher had with Minnesota.
During his Penguins interview, Botterill is said to have impressed ownership with his aggressive plans regarding the coaching staff and for next season’s roster, specifically his identification of how to create cap space and change the dressing-room culture.
No candidate to replace Shero was more rounded than Fitzgerald, who, like Botterill, joined the Penguins during the 2007 offseason.
Fitzgerald, 45 and a former first-round draft pick, played 17 NHL seasons and was a team captain. Before that NHL success, he spent several seasons in the minor leagues. The word Shero always associated with Fitzgerald was “character.”
Hired as director of player development, Fitzgerald joined former coach Dan Bylsma’s staff in February 2009 — and the Penguins won the Cup four months later.
So Fitzgerald coached Guerin. He also impressed the MVP of that Penguins’ Cup team.
“Great coach,” Evgeni Malkin said. “(He is) smart (and) understands the game. (He shows) respect to players. (That) is why we play hard for him.”
After the Cup victory, Fitzgerald accepted another Shero-created position: assistant to the general manager. He presided over organizational prospect development but in latter years also became an advisor on NHL roster moves. This past season he began negotiating some minor league contracts.
Fitzgerald said he initially thought he had only a “token interview” to replace Shero. He treated it as a real shot because it also was his first opportunity to go after a general manager job.
He is said to have impressed owners with his knowledge of the prospect system and assessment of those prospects and thoughts on what the current roster tangibly and intangibly lacked.
Guerin often has tried to downplay his intangible impact on the 2009 Cup team that he joined at the trade deadline. Admittedly, he brought levity to a tense dressing room, but he was more than comic foil to a then-burdened captain Sidney Crosby.
Guerin also was Crosby’s sharp-shooting winger on the top line. Guerin said his leadership style worked because he still had clout as a contributor.
Fearless and family oriented as his 18-season NHL run ended, Guerin took a year away from hockey before rejoining the Penguins. He spent the past three seasons as a player development coach. Shero’s theory on hiring Guerin was that prospects could benefit from the wisdom of somebody who started as a No. 5 overall draft pick and turned that potential into three Olympics, two Cup titles, league-wide respect and millions of dollars.
Guerin, 43, went all in upon his hiring. His family moved to Pittsburgh, and he became a regular wherever Wilkes-Barre/Scranton played on weekends. He worked closely with Fitzgerald on prospect matters and became an unofficial advisor to Shero on trades.
Though less experienced in most management aspects, Guerin is arguably most important to Rutherford. Part of his job will be to make sure Rutherford knows not only what issues might need to be addressed with current players but also to take the temperature of the dressing room.
Rutherford used Ron Francis similarly in Carolina, Hurricanes and former Penguins center Jordan Staal said.
“You didn’t run into (Rutherford) a lot,” Staal said.
As Crosby said of Guerin, “One thing about Billy is that you can’t really avoid him.”