PHN Blog: Penguins Looking Backward, Forward With Uncertainty
It’s been a week since the Pittsburgh Penguins told Ron Hextall and Brian Burke their services were no longer required. The move seemed to be going down last Thursday night during the Penguins’ regular-season finale in Columbus, and the hunt is on not for replacements but first for what to replace.
PHN has circled 10 GM candidates so far. Dave Molinari established the first six Penguins GM candidates, including Jason Botterill, and I followed with four more Penguins GM potentials, including one with analytics and scouting experience.
I didn’t plan to tell the story, but my colleague and friend Jeff Hatthorn of 93-7 the Fan told the story on the air, and my phone started buzzing from everyone asking about it. Before the game in Columbus, ushers herded Jeff and me into the elevator with Hextall and Burke (we tried to avoid it, but Ohio people are so darned friendly). Our greetings to the Penguins brass were unreturned and unacknowledged.
Even by my standards, that ride was awkward.
Initially, a press conference was not scheduled after the firings on Friday. A presser wasn’t called until a couple of hours later.
On the topic of awkwardness, Fenway Sports Group co-head Dave Beeston faced the media one week ago to discuss the moves and direction of the Pittsburgh Penguins franchise. He’s obviously not used to the glare of cameras and media attention, and we’ve heard he was nervous.
After all, they were not only his first public comments but FSG’s first comments since buying the team in late 2021.
Beeston is FSG’s conduit for all things Penguins, including the valuable land development around the arena and in the Hill District. However, it became evident that on the hockey side, he’s a pass-through to owners John Henry and Tom Werner, who oversee all of FSG’s sports properties.
“Fenway Sports Group — John Henry and Tom Werner are the principal and chairman of the company, and they’re responsible for the oversight of the Penguins like they are for other teams and other assets that we have,” Beeston said. “The way we operate is that John and Tom are responsible for the business and the sporting side. So Kevin (Acklin) reports through John and Tom, and the new hockey operations leader, whoever we hire, will also report through Tom and John.”
PHN can report that Pittsburgh Penguins office staff had polarized views on Burke. Some felt him intentionally intimidating and had a few other complaints, while others found him friendly.
Hextall was a different matter. He seems to have repeated all of the mistakes he made in Philadelphia, including being shuttered in his office. One office staffer reported only meeting him “about” twice in two years.
This week, one league source bellowed to PHN regarding the initial hirings, “Do your homework!”
Also, PHN asked Beeston about a timeline to prepare for the NHL Draft, and he indicated the scouting staff would continue working. Nick Pryor, the son of fired AGM Chris Pryor, leads the amateur scouting staff. Pryor, 32, was hired in July 2021.
Ron’s son, Brian Hextall, is still listed as the Integrated Development coach on the team website.
Uncertainty, thy name is FSG.
Over the last two years, the clean sweep of management has left the Penguins shorthanded. Beeston essentially said they were beginning the process from scratch, not just in terms of creating a short list but in building an organizational structure.
“There’s no parameters or set format for what we will hire. I think we’ve learned in all of our sports endeavors that these jobs are not one-person, two-person jobs,” said Beeston.
No interim president or GM was named. No parameters. That’s certainly a choice.
The problem with FSG’s approach is that it shows they’re unfamiliar with the hockey ops side and have not developed a network of advisors or trusted people on that side of the business.
It’s an ownership group that hasn’t cultivated many relationships in the league and has no parameters for rebuilding its organization. How does a project begin without a starting point?
The Penguins are like an expansion team with a full roster and coach but a new owner asking around about how a front office is built.
Sportsnet’s Elliotte Friedman also brought up an insightful point in his 32 Thoughts column. Some teams may deny the Penguins permission to speak to candidates, fearing FSG is using the interviews to learn “best practices.”
The Flyers are already reported to have interviewed Cancucks AGM Emilie Castonguay for a management position. The Penguins are a few steps behind.
The Penguins currently have everything. Star players. Active fanbase. But a headless hockey operations department.