Ron Hextall is pretty close to undefeated as the general manager of the Pittsburgh Penguins, often despite the noise surrounding him.
Something was broken with the Penguins in late October and a few weeks in November. The penalty-kill was little more than a red cape for the charging bull of opposing power plays. The team lacked energy and had an odd air of indifference, bordering on arrogance, as it sank like a stone in the Eastern Conference standings.
Losing seemed to annoy them, although they routinely repeated the same mistakes.
It seemed like they could do nothing right against teams like Calgary, even Seattle, and the formerly lifeless Vancouver Canucks, yet they publicly maintained they liked parts of their game.
Raise your hand if you insisted a trade was necessary. I certainly was in that camp.
Someone, almost anyone, had to go. That’s how it works when you’re losing.
The men who previously held Hextall’s seat surely would have made a “change of scenery” move or three to shake the team from its slumber.
Jim Rutherford did that multiple times, including in November, 2018 when he attempted to rattle cages by trading the immensely popular Carl Hagelin for Tanner Pearson.
Ray Shero had regular-season dynamos and never faced a spiraling regular-season team. Shero did his work near the NHL trade deadline, but he never was shy.
Craig Patrick could and would move players like an auctioneer, though that was mostly in the pre-salary cap days, when trades were a little easier.
For example, in November 1997, Patrick wanted to remake his team. He acquired six players over three trades in one day before the season was two months old. Jason Woolley, Stu Barnes, Darius Kasparaitis, Andreas Johansson, Alex Hicks, and Frederick Olausson became Penguins.
Patrick made nine trades that season.
Yet, as the 2022-23 Pittsburgh Penguins’ fortress appeared to be crumbling in November, and no one seemed to have any real answers, Hextall kept his powder dry.
His inaction was as correct as it was inexplicable.
Even Kasperi Kapanen, generally viewed as Hextall’s summer mistake, is playing good hockey since returning from his healthy scratch exile. He has four goals in his last three games, including “the easiest hat trick in history” on Saturday against St. Louis.
More importantly than the flashing goal lights, Kapanen is playing in the low zone, and with speed.
Hextall also rejected “offers” for Jason Zucker over the summer. PHN reported that a Metro team offered to take Zucker, but only with a first-round pick attached.
Hextall declined that potential Penguins trade.
Another good move. Zucker has been one of the resurgent Penguins this season. He’s the team’s fourth-leading scorer with 18 points (6-12-18) in 24 games.
Not bad for a guy who, in May, had been propped up on the bench in the playoffs like a Macy’s window mannequin so that he could play through a core-muscle injury.
Hextall has a long path ahead as he attempts to remake the Pittsburgh Penguins around the aging core of Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin, and Kris Letang. The Philadelphia Flyers fans aren’t so happy with Hextall’s draft record, and mentioning his name typically brings a swift and adverse reaction (including from some inside the Flyers organization, who directed heavy criticism at Ron Hextall last year).
The Flyers’ current state of disrepair and woe does, in part, point back to Hextall’s inactivity.
But the Penguins are a different team, in a different place.
Because of Hextall’s lack of panic when all around him seemed ready and the resurgence of Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin, the Penguins remained the same team, they are winners of three straight, 10 of 14, and are now in a playoff position (third place in the Metro).
Just don’t tell Flyers fans. Hextall got it right.