The Pittsburgh Penguins are never dull. As the search for the next Penguins GM gathered steam, the Penguins ownership, and President David Morehouse moved posthaste when they found their candidate. Not only did the Penguins hire Ron Hextall as their new GM, but they also added Brian Burke in the newly created President of Hockey Operations position.
To the short: The Penguins straddled the fence with Burke, a swashbuckling GM-type known to swing for the fences to win now, and Hextall who methodically assembled young talent with patience and care.
The structure is simple. Hextall reports to Burke. Burke reports to Morehouse. And Morehouse reports to Lemieux.
Hextall and Burke playfully spared on a 20-minute video conference on Tuesday afternoon, as Hextall deferred to Burke, who then deferred back to Hextall.
“Burky, you want to take that,” Hextall asked.
“No, you’re the general manager, Hexy. You go ahead,” Burke laughed.
The Pittsburgh Penguins sought out their dream team. Burke was consulting for Morehouse, and in the process, Penguins owner Mario Lemieux suggested adding Burke, too. So, in that process of finding a GM, the Penguins also got at least one set of eyes who recently said the Penguins championship window was closed.
How’s that for dramatic?
And that’s probably what the team desperately needs, a new sets of eyes not sold on the status quo.
Will the Pittsburgh Penguins Trade Evgeni Malkin or Kris Letang?
To answer the burning question on fans’ minds and on hockey executives’ lips, the answer is decidedly unlikely. Burke and Hextall spoke convincingly about the need to win this year.
Hextall offered a caveat that he can’t predict all things, and so the answer is not 100% guaranteed, but the pair made it obvious trading either Kris Letang or Evgeni Malkin is unlikely.
“We like our team…” Hextall began. “…Our job is to analyze our team. I can’t tell you what’s coming our way; I can’t. I can’t tell you how good our team is going to be the rest of the year, therefore — to be definitive in a direction, obviously, we have different ideas. In my interviews, we talked about all kinds of different scenarios. We went through them all…
We’ve got to keep an eye on the future, and we’ll grab some assets here and there, but we’ve also got to put the best team — You’ve got players Malkin, Crosby, and Letang. We want to be as good as we can right now with three of the top players in the world.”
And that’s the full context of the answer. All three core players were cited as top players and cited in the context of building around them, at least this year. Next year maybe a different ballgame based on this season’s results, but the Penguins core will have at least one more shot together.
The only real holdbacks are if a team made an offer, which makes the 2020-21 Penguins better, or the Penguins fall out of playoff contention, thus triggering the rebuild sooner than anticipated.
In other words, don’t hold your breath for a Letang or Malkin trade. At least not this season.
Brian Burke, Pittsburgh Penguins President Hockey Operations
It was obvious Burke spent the last few years playing to a TV camera from the Sportsnet studios. With autographed Daniel and Henrik Sedin sweaters in the background (Burke was the Vancouver GM who engineered taking them together), Burke’s ease in handling serious questions and ability to play to his audience shined through.
“Getting to work for the Penguins, that’s Cadillac class,” Burke said. “It’s not a run-of-the-mill team or ownership. Pittsburgh is one of the best sports towns on the planet. It’s a chance to work with Hexy, great owners, and an organization that’s revered. To me, it was a no-brainer.”
Hextall will handle the heavy lifting, but it’s Burke who may handle the bright lights of TV cameras. In the process of his Canadian TV role, Burke declared the Penguins window to be closed. No more championships. So, how did he reconcile that with now being the Penguins’ President of Hockey Ops?
“I’m not going back away from anything I said in a media role…” he declared. “The way I compare teams is–you take a team, write it down on paper and put it next to the Tampa Bay Lightning, or put it next to the Washington Capitals. And that’s my job as an analyst on TV.
…There’s a whole bunch of teams with extreme salary cap issues that haven’t won a bloody thing. At least in Pittsburgh, when Jimmy Rutherford goes to buy gas, he’s got two rings on. I’m not going to back away from anything I said, but when you have pieces like we have here, you’ve got to try to win.”
In his history, Burke is the Toronto Maple Leafs GM who acquired Phil Kessel from Boston for two first-round picks and a second-rounder. The first-round picks became Tyler Seguin (2010) and Dougie Hamilton (2011).
Burke was also the Anaheim Ducks GM who acquired Chris Pronger from Edmonton in 2006 and won a Stanley Cup on the strength of that trade.
As the Calgary Flames President of Hockey Operations from 2013-2018, Burke only served as interim-GM of the Calgary Flames for one season (2013-14), but the first pick under his direction was, ahem, Sam Bennett, who has recently filled NHL trade rumors. Bennett is a grinding player with speed. He’s right up Burke’s ally.
Burke’s desire to be hard to play against was born out in his moves atop the Toronto Maple Leafs. He acquired James Van Riemsdyk, Mark Fraser, Carter Ashton, David Steckel, Cody Franson, all between Feb 2011 and June 2012.
While fans “worry” that Hextall’s Philadelphia lineage means he will seek big bodies and physical players, that history is far more Burke than Hextall.
Ron Hextall, Pittsburgh Penguins General Manager
Hextall is the planner. It will assuredly fall on him to rebuild the Pittsburgh Penguins pipeline. It’s been five years since the Penguins drafted a player who made it to the NHL. Just think of where the world was in 2015. It was a lifetime ago.
The Penguins created a situation in which one person will not get the blame or wrath should big changes become necessary. They’ve also handed Hextall a bare cupboard with few picks in the queue and a team middling in the East Division.
Having covered Burke in Toronto, my gut feeling is that Hextall will be the brakes and Burke will be the gas. The Penguins will embark on a rebuild, or at least a significant retool, sooner than later. Former GM Jim Rutherford laid the groundwork with players in their mid-20s and with speed. Players like Jared McCann, Mike Matheson, Kasperi Kapanen, and Brandon Tanev dot the roster, but how good are the Penguins?
Hextall will be tasked with determining just how good the Penguins can be in their current form and massaging the roster until it is time for the big moves, or if those ever come.
The Penguins do not have legit prospects in their system. Currently, with the WBS Penguins, there are a couple of potential NHL players, but no one is beating down the door. Top prospects and 2019 draft picks Sam Poulin and Nathan Legare were sent back to juniors, not the AHL. It’s almost inexplicable the Penguins put their top prospects on the shelf for nearly six weeks (the QMJHL season doesn’t begin again until Feb. 27), but that’s where the players stand.
Hextall’s job will be to find a way to discover NHL players with limited picks in the 2021 draft and find a way to acquire a few more, presumably, without dishing a star player.
Hextall may or may not bring a few of his people on board, eventually. GMs don’t do the drafting. Scouts and scouting directors do the real work. And the Penguins staff hasn’t found anyone on the draft board in a while, though the European scouts and NCAA scouts have found a few free agents, such as Drew O’Connor and John Marino.
The Penguins’ future may not be as bright as their recent past, but this team is never boring.