Tuesday, 9 February 2021

Fire And Ice

The search for the new general manager for the Pittsburgh Penguins is over and it's not two men, but both will have input. The new man taking over for Jim Rutherford is Ron Hextall who is an interesting hire based upon his long association with the Philadelphia Flyers, but the second man that was hired was Brian Burke - yes, THAT Brian Burke - who takes over in the newly-created role of President of Hockey Operations. While I'm not concerned at all about these two men working together, I am concerned about the Penguins believing the window to win is still open.

I'm actually quite excited for a general manager like Ron Hextall to take over as Hextall was responsible to amassing a ton of the talent one sees in Philadelphia today. Hextall drafted Travis Sanheim and Oskar Lindblom in 2014, Ivan Provorov and Travis Konecny in 2015, Carter Hart in 2016, and Nolan Patrick in 2017. All of six of those players have been contributors in the Flyers' success over the last two seasons, and it appears they have a strong future moving forward.

Where Hextall was criticized at times was his refusal to trade for older players when proven talent became available. It's clear, though, that by holding and developing those younger players seen above has paid off with the success that the Flyers are having. Fans criticized the slow, patient growth strategy that Hextall employed that, combined with Dave Hakstol's coaching, never seemed to find a groove, but it's pretty obvious that Carter Hart, Travis Konecny, Ivan Provorov, and Travis Sanheim have been instrumental in Philadelphia's start this season.

With Pittsburgh, the cupboards are bare as Ray Shero's work to bolster the Wilkes-Barre/Scranton Penguins with all sorts of quality college players and solid draft picks was decimated under Jim Rutherford's efforts to keep the Pittsburgh Penguins as a Stanley Cup favorite. Hextall, who was tasked with the same work when he took over in Philadelphia in 2014, will need to find some quality players quickly through free agency to rebuild that minor-league system.

Knowing some of the other teams' pipelines from his work in Los Angeles will also help Hextall unearth talented players who may have been buried or fallen down depth charts for some reason. There are players who seemingly should be playing in the NHL but can't find that roster spot for whatever reason - Josh Ho-Sang, for example - who could really bolster the Penguins at both the NHL and AHL levels, but it will up to Hextall to find those players and pry them away from those teams.

The roster that the Penguins currently employ has enough talent to be dangerous, but ownership is lying to themselves if they believe the Penguins are still in the championship chatter. This team needs an overhaul on defence, likely needs upgrades or more time for their goaltending to improve, and likely an injection of more talent on the bottom-six or at least a handful of players who aren't on the injured list regularly. Ron Hextall should be emphasizing the rebuild while remaining competitive, but temper expectations while doing it.

Brian Burke's role is less clear as to how much input he will have when it comes to personnel decisions. Burke likes the proven guys and the veteran players over the younger kids, and he isn't know for being patient as a general manager. There are player decisions to be made about aging stars - Malkin is 34, but still effective, while Crosby is 33 and still one of the better players in the league. Kris Letang, whose game seems to be deteriorating in his own zone, is also 33, and there will be questions swirling about his future.

Am I happy about these moves? I like Hextall in the role of GM better than I liked Rutherford, but Burke worries me due to his title and what he'll do if he's instructed to win now. I'm ok with Hextall rebuilding the farm while icing the best team he can, but they'd be wise to find ways to rid themselves of a bad Michael Matheson contract, an insane Brandon Tanev contract, and a ridiculous John Marino contract extension that was in no way necessary for Rutherford to do.

It will take some creative accounting and imagination by Hextall and Burke for some of these things to happen, but there might be enough gas left in the tanks of Crosby and Malkin to make another deep run. For the first time in a long time, I feel like the two men who are steering this good ship Penguins might actually be able to set it on the right course.

Until next time, keep your sticks on the ice!

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