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Penguins Perspectives: Fire and sell

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Welcome to Penguins Perspectives, a weekly column by KDKA-TV Digital Producer Patrick Damp. Each Monday, Patrick will talk about the week that was, the week to come, what to watch for, and more.

PITTSBURGH (KDKA) – I never thought I'd see the day I'd be writing these words in the Sidney Crosby era of Penguins hockey, but here we are.

Punt on the season, sell what you can, replace the general manager, and start again next year.

I don't take that lightly, either. After working in professional hockey for a few years, I do have a bit of a bias when it comes to calling for front office and hockey operations jobs. It's a cold, unforgiving business and when the calls for a coach, general manager, or president of hockey operations jobs, that's still a human being you're talking about.

The business, however, has to be a cold and unforgiving one, because of everything that comes with putting a subpar product out there. Declining ticket sales, lost revenue, a fall in television ratings, a loss of fan interest, and so, so much more.

Right now, the Penguins have found themselves in a situation, in many ways, that they haven't in a really long time.

First and foremost, Evgeni Malkin and Sidney Crosby have been exceptionally healthy. Since these two broke into the league so many years ago, there was always some kind of injury. Minor or major, playing a full 82 was a rare sight for these two.

This season, Crosby remains on a team-friendly deal and Malkin was signed to one just this summer. They're producing at or above their expected values given the money they account for against the NHL's salary cap.

However, their supporting cast is nothing short of subpar.

That doesn't mean their linemates, it's what we discussed in this very column last week, it's the bottom six forwards. They're either making too much and producing too little or simply just passengers that don't produce positively or negatively.

For a team with two generational talents looking for their curtain call, that's unacceptable.

The Penguins also find themselves locked in a dead heat for a wild card berth in the Stanley Cup Playoffs.

Now, the Metropolitan Division since its inception in 2013-14 has been a murderer's row with teams such as the Capitals, Rangers, Penguins, Hurricanes, Flyers, Islanders, Devils, and Blue Jackets all taking turns being contenders and competitive.

This year is no different.

Carolina, New Jersey, and the Rangers are pacing the top three in the division and the Penguins, Islanders, and Capitals find themselves scratching and clawing for two wild card spots, maybe even just one if Buffalo, Detroit, or Florida have anything to say about it.

In a season where the Penguins have four 20-plus goal-scorers, the team shouldn't be fighting for their playoff lives, they should be separating themselves from the pack.

Again, that is not happening.

All of this falls on the team's general manager, Ron Hextall.

While he's made his fair share of smart moves, including making sure Rust, Malkin, and Letang all returned on affordable deals, just about everything else has been a stumble. From replacing the likes of Jared McCann with Brock McGinn and Danton Heinen to seeing two possible championship runs derailed by poor goaltending or injuries in the net and running back the same goalie tandem, overpaying your stars is never a bad idea, but overpaying unproductive depth is what pushes you into the mushy middle. 

That doesn't even address his seeming unwavering resolve to not part with a first-round pick.

It's certainly one of the deepest drafts in recent memory, but a bottom-15 first-round pick is not going to help Crosby, Malkin, and Letang lift a fourth Stanley Cup. Not impossible, but certainly improbable.

As I write this, we're just hours removed from Ron Hextall being bailed out of one of his biggest mistakes: the extension of Kasperi Kapanen. I understand the appeal, a first-round pick who produced with a team known for offense, and his tremendous foot speed. It's very enticing. However, in no world was Kapanen worth a $3.2 million extension.

St. Louis claimed him after Hextall admitted his mistake by placing Kapanen on waivers, but it's a mistake that should've never been made.

Right now, the Penguins find themselves in yet another unfamiliar situation – they will have a fairly significant amount of salary cap space this summer, nearly $22.5 million of it, in fact.

Hextall should not be the person who oversees that offseason given the contracts that are currently on the books of his doing.

The Penguins will have four open roster spots at forward and one at defense this offseason with the likes of Brian Dumoulin, Josh Archibald, Danton Heinen, Teddy Blueger, and Jason Zucker all entering unrestricted free agency. Of that group, only one has shown they're worthy of bringing back and that is Jason Zucker.

Between re-signing the likes of Jeff Carter, Kasperi Kapanen, and bringing in McGinn, Heinen, Rutta, Jeff Petry, and letting other talented players like McCann, Brandon Tanev, and Evan Rodrigues leave via expansion draft, trade, or simply not re-signing, it's time for a new direction on Fifth Avenue.

The 2022-23 Penguins season is a wash. While Hextall's resolve to not trade a pick is now the correct answer, his work to get to said answer was not the right kind.

The 2023 Penguins offseason is now an inflection point in the franchise's history and they're going to need a better vision to make sure the final days of the franchise's best era aren't wasted. 

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