Chatter is beginning to grow around the Pittsburgh Penguins organization and the search for a new GM. While the Penguins actual search committee consists only of team President David Morehouse, owners Mario Lemieux and Ron Burkle, the net cast is wide.
Pittsburgh Hockey Now spent the last several days tracking down candidates and info. We have spoken to multiple sources inside and outside the Penguins organization.
PHN has confirmed a handful of candidates, including broadcast analysts, former AGMs, current AGMs, and an agent. Sportsnet’s Elliotte Friedman reported a list of eight candidates but was missing one candidate that PHN can confirm.
Watch out for the player agent. Dee Rizzo has a few fans in hockey who have made strong pitches on his behalf to the Penguins’ ownership. One well-connected source outside the Penguins org told Pittsburgh Hockey that at least one high-profile FOM (friend of Mario) made a strong case for Rizzo.
Rizzo is a Pittsburgh native with a big personality and a long track record behind the scenes in hockey. He recruited both Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin to the super-agency CAA. His work with young players and integrity are quickly mentioned by those who know him.
“Everybody is an old friend,” is how an industry source described him to PHN earlier this week.
However, Rizzo is not the leading candidate, at least according to a pair of sources familiar with ownership’s thinking. According to multiple conversations had by Hockey Now this weekend, it seems Lemieux is currently favoring former Philadelphia Flyers GM Ron Hextall.
“He likes the way Hextall built Philly back up,” said a source.
Perhaps Lemieux also owes Hextall one for hanging a five-spot on him and chasing him from the 1989 Patrick Division Final?
Hextall earned a sterling builder’s reputation in Los Angeles as the AGM of the LA Kings, who won two Stanley Cups (2012, 2014) with a myriad of young players, including Tyler Toffoli, Tanner Pearson, Alec Martinez, and grinding role players such as Dwight King and Jordan Nolan.
However, Hextall’s job in Philadelphia particularly impressed the Penguins. Beginning in 2013, Hextall spent a year as the AGM and GM in waiting. In 2014 as the general manager, Hextall began an overhaul of the Philadelphia, which at times clashed with Philadelphia ownership’s impatience and President Paul Holmgren’s wishes.
Philadelphia made the playoffs twice in four years under Hextall. They failed to win a playoff series, but they added a wealth of young talent, including goalie Carter Hart, winger Oskar Lindblom, and defenseman Ivan Provorov.
Hextall’s focus on youth and player development guided him to make an unconventional coaching hire when he hired the long-time University of North Dakota coach Dave Hakstol. Hakstol lasted three-plus seasons in Philadelphia with two playoff appearances.
Under Hextall, Philadelphia drafted 19 players who made their NHL debut and five players who have or will shortly play 150 or more NHL games. Three players, including Provorov (2015 first round, 7th overall) and Travis Konecny (2015 first-round, 24th overall), have played more than 300 NHL games.
Hart was a second-round pick in 2016. Lindblom was a fifth-round steal in 2014.
By comparison, since 2013, the Penguins drafted just seven players who have played in the NHL, and none since 2015.
A couple of victories and no major losses balance Hextall’s trade record. However, he made only 18 trades in four years, which may send Penguins fans into shock or withdrawal.
Hextall’s biggest trade was in 2017. Philadelphia needed room to move Claude Giroux to the wing, and Hextall traded Brayden Schenn to St. Louis for two first-round picks and Jori Lehtera. Hextall turned the first top pick into Morgan Frost (2017, 27th overall), and Joel Farabee (2018, 14th overall).
Edit: Hextall was the Philadelphia GM when Farabee was selected. Our original version indicated he was not.
Ultimately, Hextall’s patient approach to player development cost him when Flyers ownership wanted goalie Carter Hart to be promoted to the NHL, but Hextall wanted to wait. Ownership usually wins, and it did then, too.
Hextall is currently a part-time senior advisor with LA.
The committee is working to quickly fill the Penguins GM vacancy as the on-ice product is middling due to injuries and ineffective star players. Interim GM Patrik Allvin is also a candidate. He served as the Penguins Director of Amateur Scouting from 2017-2020 before the team promoted him to assistant GM in October.
The Penguins are 5-5-1 and part of a six-team gaggle in the East Division, separated by one point for fourth place, the final playoff spot.