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Starkey: Rutherford will add when timing’s right

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Chaz Palla | Trib Total Media
Penguins general manager Jim Rutherford speaks in September 2014 at Consol Energy Center.

Having spent parts of five decades in the NHL — six if you include the day the Detroit Red Wings drafted him 10th overall in 1969 — Penguins general manager Jim Rutherford knows every season brings unique challenges.

This season, Rutherford’s first running the Penguins, has been no exception. The team passed the quarter mark Wednesday. A day earlier, I caught up with Rutherford at his Consol Energy Center office. We discussed an eventful, largely successful first 20 games and the heart-wrenching episodes involving defenseman Olli Maatta and winger Pascal Dupuis.

On the wall behind Rutherford was a framed photo of his younger self, curls flowing out from behind the blue goalie mask he wore for the Penguins in the early 1970s. It served as a reminder that this man, who will turn a Penguins-significant 66 in February, has seen a few things — and knows seasons aren’t decided in November, even if all the offseason moves look pretty good at that point.

Team-shaping continues to the last minute of the trade deadline and beyond.

“My finish line is June,” Rutherford said.

Among the topics broached:

• The obvious need for help on the wings. Rutherford spoke more frankly than most GMs would have after he expressed genuine gratitude for how his players have produced and worked at developing a solid bond.

“We’ll still make some changes with the team,” he said. “We need to get more balance in our forward lines. And I say that with all due respect to the players we have. The guys have worked hard. At the same time, there’s a lot of good teams in this league, and I recognize that we’ll have to get more depth up front.”

Rutherford was planning to add a top-six winger before Dupuis was lost for the season and Beau Bennett went down. He’ll now consider adding more. As long as the Penguins avoid a major tailspin, it’s likely he’ll wait for the best possible deals.

He also will wait, incidentally, to address the contract situation of defenseman Paul Martin, whose deal expires after the season.

• Dupuis’ future. Diagnosed with a blood clot in his lung, Dupuis will miss at least the rest of the regular season. He will stay involved, likely as a de facto coach in the press box.

“(Dupuis would be) the eye in the sky, coming down between periods and pointing out some things that you really don’t see from behind the bench,” Rutherford said. “If a player has something he’s not comfortable going to the coach with, Duper can probably soften it a little bit. We felt very strongly we needed to keep him aboard.”

Does he believe Dupuis will play again?

“That’s so hard to say. When I talked to him, my message was, ‘Don’t give up. You don’t know what’s going to happen down the road. You’re going to be told one thing, but stick with it and see what happens.’ We all know he’s a guy with a lot of determination.”

• The disappointing home-and-home series with the New York Islanders, which coach Mike Johnston had previewed as a playoff simulation.

Rutherford doesn’t buy that the Penguins were thoroughly outplayed. He said nothing about the series changing his take on his team because he already knew more balance was needed up front.

Some things, however, were obvious.

“The Islanders are dramatically improved,” he said. “They’ve got a lot of team speed. I believe they have more balance in their forward lines than we do. We have a lot of strengths that they don’t. I respect their team. But I still feel we’re in a pretty strong position.”

• The splitting of Sidney Crosby and Chris Kunitz and whether Johnston needed to clear the move with Rutherford.

“We have a good line of communication, but once (Johnston) gets the players, he can do what he wants with them,” Rutherford said. “He makes that decision. I think it’s a good decision. I think it’s good to give those guys a little bit of a break. They’ve been together a long time.”

• Life in Pittsburgh with wife Leslie and 6-year-old son James (Rutherford has an adult daughter named Andrea).

“The city’s obviously cleaned up since (he played here), but the culture hasn’t changed,” he said. “The people are very friendly. How can you not like it here? My son loves his school. He loves playing hockey in a house league. He’s looking forward to the snow. I’m not. He is.”

As for the rest of the season, goodness knows what might happen after the way the first quarter went.

“You enter a season, and everybody has their vision of what it’s gonna be,” Rutherford said. “But you know it’s never that way.”

Joe Starkey co-hosts a show 2 to 6 p.m. weekdays on 93.7 FM. Reach him at [email protected].

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