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).