Bad news for Pittsburgh Penguins fans who want to see Evgeni Malkin or Kris Letang in different uniforms next season, and good news for others, including Letang, who want to stick around.
Penguins general manager Ron Hextall was fairly definitive in his season-ending press conference on Wednesday. Sorry, Letang and Malkin detractors. The Penguins core will more than likely be back.
“We see a future with this core, and these guys have been here a long time…We had a good year. (It) certainly didn’t give me pause to think about what we should do with this core,” Hextall said. “…Most of our goals-against, goals-for, all those types of numbers were all good. So it wasn’t a fluke. So I expect to have all of these guys back next year, for sure.”
One wonders if the answer would have been the same had the Penguins not dominated large portions of the series against the New York Islanders. It’s no matter. The Penguins’ acquisition of Jeff Carter solidified the lineup for at least one more year, and the Penguins’ best chance to win a Stanley Cup or simply make the playoffs will be to keep the core + Carter intact.
It delays the inevitable, but it also gives the Penguins another fighting chance–if they get better goaltending in the playoffs from Tristan Jarry or whoever is appointed the backup goalie.
“(We) saw what happened in Game 5, an unfortunate error there. And then Game Six wasn’t the best, but I think we wouldn’t have been where we were without Tristan,” said Hextall. “And we all have to remember, Tristan is a young player. He’s going to learn from this, and he’s going to come back better in September. So we all learn lessons in life. And if you’re going to be a goaltender in this league for a long time, you’re going to have your ups and downs as pretty much every guy does…”
Hextall’s confidence in Jarry probably comes from experience as much as his management. After a brilliant rookie run to the Stanley Cup final in 1987, Hextall himself tanked in the following two playoff years, including being broken by Mario Lemieux and the Pittsburgh Penguins in 1989. You may remember Hextall chasing Robby Brown with murderous intent in Game 5, but not remember that Hextall was benched for Game 7 of that series in favor of Ken Wregget, who slammed the door on the Penguins (before being a part of the Penguins 1992 Stanley Cup team).
Hextall seemed to speak with confidence on Jarry, the return of the Penguins core, as well as his belief that he will not give up the Penguins’ second-round pick to Seattle to protect any of his players.
“My approach is that we’re going to probably lose a pretty good player and rather than give up a couple of assets to try to try to keep (players),” the GM said. “I think we’ll probably lose a pretty good player. I’m speculating there, obviously, who knows what will come along, but right at this point, I’d say we’ll just lose a player.”
PHN will examine the Kraken Expansion Draft as the weeks get closer, but Jared McCann, Brandon Tanev, Marcus Pettersson, and Jason Zucker are the prime potentials to be left twisting in the breeze for Seattle GM Ron Francis. The Penguins and the league learned their lesson after Vegas Golden Knights GM George McPhee fleeced everyone for additional compensation. Just imagine, the Penguins GM Jim Rutherford coughed up a second-round pick to make sure McPhee picked Marc-Andre Fleury.
Go ahead. Imagine Vegas NOT selecting the current Vezina trophy nominee.
So, with the core + Carter coming back, but the Penguins needing to find a way to improve their results, look for the secondary players to be on the move. And Hextall admitted he, too, would like to add some of what many of you are clamoring for: Size.
Beef. Girth. Ill-intent. Hammers. Grinders. Size.
And it will be to deal with the obstruction, hooking, holding, tackling of the lesser talented teams, which the NHL officials seemed to allow in the playoffs. Hextall saw that, too.
“That’s something to think about right now as the standard has gone up, in terms of what is and what isn’t a penalty since the playoffs started,” Hextall admitted. “And it’s something that you can’t just ignore. But I think the biggest thing in the playoffs is you’ve got to have a team that’s willing to play through it…”
And yes, Hextall and Pittsburgh Penguins head coach Mike Sullivan are indeed on the same page. We can put that drama to rest, as well.
“There’s going to be teams that want to play physical and run you because they feel like that’s the only way that that they can beat you. And you’ve got to have players that are willing to play through that,” Hextall continued. “And quite honestly, I think we showed that in the first round that we had a lot of players are willing to play through the hard stuff and the hooks and the holds and the interference.”
But through it all, the goal will not change from this season. PHN gave Hextall the “out” to admit he’s looking for balance or will take a conservative strategy, but the group sold Penguins brass on the depth of the lineup; Hextall mentioned several times that the Penguins won the East Division despite missing five of their top-nine forwards.
He’s not wrong. He also gave credit to former GM Jim Rutherford for building the team. But it’s Carter who was the missing piece. So, don’t cancel your PHN+ subscriptions just yet. You’ve got at least one more year of going for the Stanley Cup.
And, I can’t argue. The Pittsburgh Penguins are still too close to give up. I’m in Denver covering the Avalanche-Golden Knights Round Two series–the clash of the titans. Take my word for it: the Penguins could play with either of these teams. A few less soft goals come playoff time, and the Penguins just might have been.
“We’ve got some pretty special players that they’re obviously not in their 20s anymore, but they’re still playing at a high level,” said the GM. “So we’ll be in win-now mode, trying to balance, giving away futures, obviously, but also trying to find ways to try to make our team a little bit better here and there.”
One more go? Yep.