Pittsburgh Penguins GM Ron Hextall has earned a reputation during his time in front offices around the NHL.
People familiar with his work regard him as studious. Dedicated. Patient.
Perhaps even too patient at times, according to one longtime acquaintance.
“He’s got the patience,” said the acquaintance, speaking on condition of anonymity. “It’s hard to be a GM sometimes because you have to balance patience with when to swing the bat.
“Is he willing to swing the bat? Sometimes, he likes to have the bat on his shoulder. The Joe Sakics, (Julien) BriseBoises, Jimmy Rutherfords, they’re not afraid to swing the bat. (Hextall) has a reputation for being a little too patient.”
It is the antithesis of how Hextall was viewed during his playing days, when he came across as one of the most impulsive, volatile competitors in the game. (Fans of a certain vintage might recall him literally chasing Rob Brown after Brown scored a goal on him during the 1989 playoffs.)
Being ultra-deliberate won’t be an option for Hextall this summer, though. Not when the Pittsburgh Penguins face the possibility — probability, even — of major roster turnover.
If not outright upheaval.
The Penguins’ list of unrestricted free agents is topped by their No. 1 defenseman (Kris Letang) and two second-line forwards (Evgeni Malkin and Rickard Rakell).
Hextall has expressed interest in retaining all three, but even if he manages to — which seems like very much of a long shot — their contracts will consume most of the roughly $23.2 million in salary-cap space with which he has to work.
Which means that holding onto some other players, such as UFA Evan Rodrigues and two others who are restricted but have arbitration rights, Danton Heinen and Kasperi Kapanen, might not be practical.
And if Letang, Malkin and/or Rakell opt to sign elsewhere, his/their departure obviously would leave a significant hole in the lineup that Hextall would have to fill via free agency or a trade.
Which will cost the Penguins cap space, at the very least, and possibly some assets, if Hextall decides a trade is the best way to address a particular opening.
There are, at least for now, too many moving parts in the Pittsburgh Penguins’ personnel picture to predict what approach Hextall will take to constructing his roster.
If, for example, he’s able to work out an agreement with Letang, which appears to be his top priority, it might hurt the chances of keeping Malkin or Rakell, simply because of how it would shrink the Penguins’ pool of available cap space.
Conversely, if Hextall and his staff determine that a few prospects in Wilkes-Barre — guys like P.O Joseph, Sam Poulin, Filip Hallander and Kasper Bjorkqvist — are ready for steady work in the NHL, it might lessen the financial strain a bit. (Although it’s worth noting that Bjorkqvist and Joseph are restricted free agents this summer.)
But regardless of how the personnel pieces begin to come together, it’s clear that Hextall is going to be compelled to be bold, and probably creative, in building his team for 2022-23. Which might include trading some veterans on the major-league roster, primarily to open cap space.
He might have to take some risks, with no guarantee they will work out the way he hopes, even if that goes against his most basic managerial instincts. Perhaps that will mean allowing a high-profile contributor to walk, or plugging an unproven young player into a prominent role.
Hextall’s position is not enviable — he’s mandated to transform a team that hasn’t won a playoff round since 2018 into a Stanley Cup-caliber club, and do it while operating under severe salary-cap constraints — and it’s far from certain that he’ll be able to reach his lofty objectives.
The only sure thing is that Hextall’s preferred approach to team-building, which is cautious and methodical, is not practical for the task at hand, and the onus is on him to prove that he’s willing to adopt a more aggressive one.