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Mario Got it Right: Hextall Giving Penguins a Better Approach

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DENVER — It probably shouldn’t be a surprise to anyone who has been around or watched the Pittsburgh Penguins since Mario Lemieux’s playing days. The big guy has a Midas touch. Things seem to work out for Lemieux, and he seems to have an innate feel for hockey, whether it was a puck on his stick or a GM to hire.

It appears Lemieux got it right, again.

When the Penguins GM search began overturning rocks for candidates, sources quickly told PHN that Lemieux was enamored and ready to fast-track Hextall.  It took about a week from interview to hire before Hextall had the big job.

He’s been a stabilizing force since.

The Penguins had a disappointing end to the 2020-21 season with another first-round exit, but they also won the loaded East Division while missing five of their top-nine forwards.

After general manager Ron Hextall’s press conference on Wednesday, in which he confirmed to a PHN question that the Penguins are, indeed, still in win-now mode, Hextall also deftly handled questions about the coming issues.

He didn’t dodge them or offer up word salads with tripe dressing. He didn’t chum the waters with vague “maybes, could be’s, and tantalizing hints.”

Instead, Hextall laid out a simple, somewhat conservative, but workable plan for the Pittsburgh Penguins near term and future.

It’s a far cry from the “seat-of-your-pants” Jim Rutherford era during which players were acquired and traded, sometimes in the same season. It sometimes seemed like a kid taking a bite out of the chocolates, finding raspberry then putting it back in the box.

In fairness, I still do that.

No, what struck me about Hextall was the deliberate and accepting nature. Rutherford dealt a second-round pick to Vegas to select goalie Marc-Andre Fleury in the expansion draft. It may have been THE most unnecessary payment at the draft.

Hextall simply waved the white flag because he’s ready to clear some salary and keep his second-round pick.

“Personally, my approach is that we’re going to probably lose a pretty good player,” Hextall said. “…Rather than give up a couple of assets to try to keep one, I think we’ll probably lose a pretty good player.”

Hextall’s first moves as the Pittsburgh Penguins GM were reserved and paid dividends without much cost. The GM claimed Philadelphia Flyers defenseman Mark Friedman from waivers. The depth defenseman had a few good games and was worth more than the “nothing” the Penguins gave up.

Next was the player who changed the Penguins dynamic: Jeff Carter. Hextall was familiar with Carter from their 2012 Stanley Cup win with the LA Kings. Hextall was the assistant general manager, and Carter was a major part of the team that won two Cups (2012, 2014).

Carter scored 14 goals in 19 games, including the playoffs, and gave the Penguins lineup a caffeine jolt. Carter single-handedly changed the dynamic by adding depth, production, and leadership. He cost the Penguins a third and fourth-round pick over the next couple of years.

Low risk. BIG reward. And Carter is the rug that ties the room together. With a dynamic third-line center, the entire lineup is elevated.

Don’t misunderstand, the Jim Rutherford era of the Pittsburgh Penguins was both successful and incredibly fun. There was never a dull moment, good or bad. There were no splashy trades with Hextall, either to undo a bad trade or acquire the shiny new toy.

It probably won’t be as successful as Rutherford’s era because Hextall didn’t inherit Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin in their 20s, but the slow and steady approach has already paid dividends.

Whatever happened to predictability? The milkman, the paperboy, evening TV.

Hextall has judged the slightly revamped Penguins roster to be closer to winning than needing to be torn down. Hextall, who Philadelphia fired in 2019 for his conservative approach to goalie Carter Hart (at least that appears to have been the flashpoint), is the necessary tonic for the Penguins unstable situation.

Could the Penguins concede another Stanley Cup is unlikely and nuke the roster instead? Absolutely, but it seems like Hextall is content to add pieces as they become available and give the team a chance.

Isn’t that better than trading the players for magic beans and hoping for a beanstalk tomorrow?

Rutherford moved quickly and aggressively. Last August, other GMs groused they didn’t have a chance to bid on the Penguins lottery pick, which Rutherford quickly shipped to Toronto for Kapanen. He went all-in while other teams were in the playoffs.

Hextall has yet done no such thing. Despite a mandate to win this season, Hextall made small moves designed to help. And Carter helped in a big way.

Hextall has been methodical and patient. After a few years of the Penguins making moves like a dog chasing its tail, it has been almost a culture shock.

What comes next is not the shock and awe flurry (or Fleury?) of moves that some fans want. Hextall, matter of factly, said he expects core players Kris Letang and Evgeni Malkin to return. It wasn’t a hedge or a tepid endorsement, but an acknowledgment the Penguins are a better team with Malkin and Letang, and the team earned the right to take another run, especially with a few more patient tweaks.

Hextall would like to add size. He didn’t shy away from that, but even his reasoning was sound. It’s not a philosophical need to be a big team, but acquiescence to the reality that NHL officials don’t call interference in the playoffs, and it takes some muscle to bust up a clustered opponent.

“It’s certainly something to think about right now that the standard I think has gone up in terms of what is and what isn’t a penalty since the playoffs started,” Hextall said. “And it’s something that you can’t just ignore.”

“If we could add a little bit of size to help with that, we would.”

The Penguins are on solid ground, even if Father Time is eroding it. The deliberate approach to getting one more Stanley Cup isn’t as fun; it’s certainly not as good for website clicks as shoot-from-the-hip wheeling and dealing.

With just a few tweaks, the Penguins improved from a postseason dud to a team that outplayed the Islanders, save for goaltending. It’s not hard to realize the Penguins showed the heart and energy which were sorely lacking over the last couple of years.

What I do know is that moving Letang and Malkin would unlikely yield a return that made the team better, and prospects are always a gamble. Why begin the years-long process any sooner than necessary?

With a few more surgical tweaks, a little luck, a little bit of beef in the lineup, who knows? It may not end in a Stanley Cup, but the playoffs are a lot more fun than covering draft picks.

Let’s not race to that process, either.

(I’m finishing this as my next flight is taking off. Community edits welcomed). 

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Pittsburgh Hockey Now Editor-in-Chief, formerly 93.7 The Fan, Sportsnet Hockey Tonight, NHL Home Ice. Catch Dan tweeting @theDanKingerski and the official @pghhockeynow account.

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David Heyl
David Heyl
3 months ago

The real question is, can this roster withstand an 82 game season & then believe they will have what it takes in the playoffs. Injuries occur as the body ages & this team over the last 4 years has been the poster boy for injuries. Hopefully some infusing of youth from the farm can carry some of the load!!

Jay95
Jay95
3 months ago
Reply to  David Heyl

And they do have intriguing talent turning pro next season…for once.

David
David
3 months ago

Glad to hear about Hextall’s approach. The Pens do not need to be dismantled at this point. They lost to the NYI because of goaltending — if Jarry plays average they win and there is no debate. Not saying how far they would have went, but there is still a season or two in this window.

Steve
Steve
3 months ago
Reply to  David

Dave, although you are probably right (we’ll never know really), the goal shouldn’t be to beat the Islanders. IN game 1 against the Isles, Pasta got a hattie and the Bruins won. Maybe if the Pens scored some more goals they would have won more games as well. I’m not sure they are good enough to win 4 rounds in the playoffs. Next year when they are a year older. Do you feel comfortable with that?

Ken Colligan
3 months ago

Hate to say it Dan but you are a bit delusional. Three top centers all in their mid thirties. They are going to have a very difficult time making the playoffs. At least they are predictable. Will once again lead league in injuries. Malkin will miss twenty games . The hope is that he actually shows up in shape this year.

jackw
jackw
3 months ago
Reply to  Ken Colligan

They are going to have a very difficult time making the playoffs.

Yeah, I heard a lot of that before this year as well. And before last year. In fact, I think I heard that before 2016. You know, during the first half of that season when Crosby was “washed up”.

Ken Colligan
3 months ago
Reply to  jackw

Living in the past is never a good recipe for success. Last three playoffs. Malkin combined 8 points and a minus 6. Crosby combined 6 points and a minus six. But I am sure they will get better next year.

Zane Gearhart
Zane Gearhart
3 months ago
Reply to  Ken Colligan

Yeah I just can’t imagine one of the top players in history working hard over the summer to help improve his game.

William Maloni
William Maloni
3 months ago
Reply to  Zane Gearhart

The Pens will return their former division next season and play more different teams.

Add better goal tender and some new size (after Zucker, Geno (to Fla.) Peddersson, Guentzel (trade to Caps for Wilson) leave.

Pens will improve.

Lars Erik Nelson
Lars Erik Nelson
3 months ago
Reply to  William Maloni

This is funny.

Patrick C
Patrick C
3 months ago
Reply to  William Maloni

Why trade for a player that intentionally hurts people? Getting bigger is fine getting dumber… No thanks. But even if people disagree with that would Washington really trade Wilson to a top rival? Let alone Pens trading Jake to Wash.

Ken Colligan
3 months ago
Reply to  Zane Gearhart

You must have missed start of Pens season last year. It took him ten games in a shortened season to start to play decently. Malkin admitted he did not train nearly as much as usual. Delusion can be a powerful hallucinogen my friend.

dweth2
dweth2
3 months ago

“Letang and Malkin would unlikely yield a return that made the team better”
Great point and totally agree. I don’t understand this trade Malkin or Letang mentality. The “core” was not the problem.

Jay95
Jay95
3 months ago
Reply to  dweth2

I actually don’t see much of a problem anywhere honestly. This team is well built and younger guys are going to be pushing for spots next year. Maybe add a bit of size to the top 6 and I think they’re good.

I guess I trust Jarry to bounce back too.

Hatrick Pornqvist
Hatrick Pornqvist
3 months ago

This team has a lot of great players. And if they are set on keeping the core together then so be it. But more than just minor tweaks are needed or the same fate will find them in next year’s playoffs. Their wingers and D are just too small. Letang and Dumo can handle a big forecheck, nobody else can. Marino and Pettersson were getting destroyed down low. Matheson was panicking with the puck. Ceci seemed ok. But when half of your D is just too small to handle the forecheck or even attempt to clear the crease, you’re going… Read more »

Jay95
Jay95
3 months ago

I think some internal options can help though. PO Joseph seemed to fair well against the forecheck at first. I think a full season in the NHL is about to happen…and, I think that he’ll be more prepared. Also Marino, as a rookie, was great. I’m thinking that he gets back to that. There are some young guys that are turning pro or coming into 2nd/3rd seasons too that can help the forwards out.

Lars Erik Nelson
Lars Erik Nelson
3 months ago

Rutherford made 2 bad trades and 1 bad signing. Trading away Oleksiak and Hagelin were both mistakes. They were both knee-jerk trades, that the team would be worse for. The Jack Johnson signing was a disaster. All his other trades were either successes or bad only in hindsight like Brassard. He should have been the Jeff Carter we needed back then. I think we need very aggressive trades outside the core players and we need to sign any free agent we can out of college. We need a tougher 3rd line defensive defenseman that can clear the front of the… Read more »

Hatrick Pornqvist
Hatrick Pornqvist
3 months ago

I would take POJ over Pettersson on the roster in a heart beat next season. MP got rag dolled by the Isles in the corners and at the net front. You would have a tough time finding a guy with less muscle on his frame in the NHL than a 6’3″ 177lb player. Give POJ a full season and put him with Ceci and he will be just fine. See if you can replace Matheson with a big bodied lefty who’s responsible in his own end and PK’s and stick him with Marino. Hell, if you can find a couple… Read more »

Last edited 3 months ago by Hatrick Pornqvist
Jay95
Jay95
3 months ago

Agree on POJ. But, Matheson is here to stay regardless of what any fan wants. They’ll probably lose Zucker in the expansion draft which will open up a bit of cap space. I do agree that moving Petterson right now is a must.

Steve
Steve
3 months ago

They’re screwed either way. Unfortunately.

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