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Molinari: Hextall Makes the Right Call



It is tempting to criticize the Pittsburgh Penguins for their reluctance to be full participants in an upcoming prospects tournament, a staple of the franchise’s preseason schedule for more than a decade.

Those events were an annual reminder that hockey season was closing in, and an early opportunity to assess the progress — and potential — of younger players on the organizational depth chart.

They gave prospects a chance to make a favorable impression on management — some members of which had never seen them play in person — and free agents who filled out the roster a chance to earn an invitation to training camp, the first step toward landing a minor-league contract.

Given that a number of such tournaments are contested across the continent, there clearly are a lot of franchises that see benefits in being involved.

But that doesn’t mean GMs, including Ron Hextall, who are inclined to skip them don’t have valid reasons. Perhaps even more compelling ones than the ones who do participate, whether it happens in San Jose, Traverse City, Mich., Buffalo or any of the other locales.

The Pittsburgh Penguins, it should be noted, will be one of six clubs represented at the event that will play out Sept. 15-19 at LECOM Harborcenter in Buffalo, albeit the only one of the group that won’t be fully involved.

A person familiar with the situation said it was obvious from the time the subject was first broached that Hextall was willing to take part in the tournament — which will include prospects from Buffalo, Boston, Ottawa, Montreal and New Jersey — but only on a limited basis.

Such an unusual condition seems as if it would be difficult to accommodate, assuming the other clubs involved were inclined (if not expected or compelled) to make a full commitment, but an apparent (and unspecified) scheduling complication made the Penguins’ game against Bruins prospects on Sept. 17 possible.

(The trip to Buffalo will fall in the midst of the Penguins’ rookie camp, which will be held Sept. 15-20 at UPMC Lemieux Sports Complex and will be a precursor to the regular training camp.)

The Penguins thus will have the low-level involvement they were seeking, while the other five teams will be able to have the full complement of three games.

At least two factors contribute to Hextall’s reluctance to send a squad for the full tournament.

He has long felt that young players are better-served by taking part in things like controlled scrimmages, which are more conducive to on-ice instruction, than tournament games.

Hextall also is believed to be concerned about the possibility of players being injured in essentially meaningless games, which has happened to a few Pittsburgh Penguins prospects over the years.

One of the most serious and unfortunate injuries occurred during the tournament at the John Labatt Centre in London, Ontario in 2010, when promising defense prospect Alex Grant had his wrist broken on a nasty hit by Ottawa’s David Dziurzynski.

Grant, who also suffered whiplash and was hospitalized overnight, missed most of the season that followed.

He remained in the organization until 2013, when he was traded to Anaheim for Harry Zolnierczyk, but never got into a game with the parent club and only appeared in two NHL games with the Ducks.

Grant later got into five more with Arizona, where he signed as a free agent in 2015.

There is, of course, no way to know with absolute certainty how that wrist injury might have altered his career path, but there’s no question that he never came close to living up to the potential he appeared to have before being hurt.

It’s safe to assume, though, that the impact of his injury endured long after anything his teammates did during that tournament had been forgotten.

Obviously, injuries are part of the game. But subjecting players to them when it isn’t necessary doesn’t seem like a good business plan.

Especially for a franchise whose top-shelf prospects, including 2022 first-round draft choice Owen Pickering, might be able to travel to a tournament on a tandem bicycle.