A few weeks ago, an opinion piece about the Pittsburgh Penguins in this space asked, “Will Hextall Be Willing to Make Bold Roster Moves?”
That was an actual issue.
And understandably so.
Ron Hextall, after all, had earned a reputation for being patient and deliberate when it came to personnel decisions during his front-office stints with Los Angeles, Philadelphia and the Penguins.
However, there appeared to be little room for inordinate caution in the situation he was facing this offseason. Creativity and aggressiveness were keys to whatever success he might have in dealing with the multi-pronged challenges before him.
The first was trying to re-sign high-profile free agents Kris Letang, Evgeni Malkin, Bryan Rust and Rickard Rakell while operating with limited salary-cap space.
Oh, and he was supposed to make the Penguins bigger (and preferably younger) along the way,
While also restructuring the roster so that the the Pittsburgh Penguins’ five-series losing streak in the Stanley Cup playoffs won’t swell to six in the spring of 2023.
And let’s not forget that Hextall was mandated, if only by himself, to do all of that while beginning to restock the franchise’s meager pool of capable young players.
In short, he was expected to make the team better in the present while simultaneously improving it for the future, objectives that are at obvious cross-purposes. Kind of like trying to skydive and swim at the same time.
Somehow, Hextall managed to do that over the weekend.
Oh, it’s not as if he added veteran defenseman Jeff Petry, skilled defenseman Ty Smith, who is 22, and bottom-six forward Ryan Poehling, 23, at no cost.
Hextall had to part with John Marino, who will be a high-impact contributor for New Jersey if he can return to — or rise above — the level he reached as a rookie in 2019-20, and Mike Matheson, who resuscitated his moribund career after being acquired from Florida for Patric Hornqvist.
Matheson probably never will be able to exorcise the occasional head-scratching gaffe from his game, but he is fast and skilled and there’s no reason to doubt that his career trajectory will continue to go in the right direction.
But when Hextall found a way to keep Letang and Malkin, there was no way he was going to deviate from his oft-stated intention to assemble a roster with the best possible chance to contend for another Cup before those two and Sidney Crosby began researching retirement communities.
Matheson, 28, should still be in his prime around that time, and Marino, 24, might just be entering his, so the trades could skew in favor of New Jersey and/or Montreal at that point.
But that would only be if Smith or Poehling doesn’t work out. Smith established his credentials by earning a spot on the NHL’s all-rookie team in 2020-21 and Poehling was a first-round draft choice in 2017.
Now, past achievements are no guarantee of future success, but one need not squint hard to see either or both filling a meaningful role as early as 2022-23.
As with most trades, there was a degree of risk involved in acquiring Smith and Poehling. Smith is smallish (5-foot-11, 180 pounds) and his modest size can pose challenges when he’s forced to deal with larger opponents in the defensive zone, while Poehling simply hasn’t lived up to the promise that made him a first-rounder.
Of course, the Devils and Canadiens were gambling, too. Perhaps Marino will continue to plateau — he’s now had more disappointing seasons than quality ones in the NHL — and Matheson might revert to the wretched form that prompted the Panthers to jettison him only three years after giving him a generous eight-year contract.
Being able to calculate risks when the situation demands it — and then being willing to actually take those risks — is part of the job description for any GM who aspires to achieve more than the maintenance of mediocrity for his team.
They don’t always work out well — remember that Craig Patrick, who made so many exceptional trades in the early 1990s, is the guy who swapped Markus Naslund for Alek Stojanov — but a GM can’t be afraid to make a bold move occasionally.
Or twice in a weekend, at times.
Hextall now has proven that he’ll go big when he believes it’s called for.
And with nine NHL-caliber defensemen currently on the Pittsburgh Penguins’ major-league depth chart — and Smith being the only one who’s exempt from waivers — he might get a chance to show it again before too terribly much longer.