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Penguins Perspectives: The People v. Ron Hextall

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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) – Everyone of the jury, we are here today to simply present the evidence in the case of The People (Pittsburgh Penguins fans) versus Ron Hextall.

While this space has been used to criticize, complain, and critique the man who serves as the Penguins' general manager, today, we're simply going to let the facts and figures speak for themselves.

Of course, reader of Penguins Perspectives, there will be some commentary added, but by the end of this column, it will be clear that in just about two short years, Ron Hextall has significantly weakened this roster and the system.

Hextall Hired:

The Penguins made their hiring of Ron Hextall official on February 9, 2021, just days after an abrupt resignation from Jim Rutherford.

The Lemieux Group, then the ownership group, announced that Hextall would take over as general manager and Brian Burke would be the President of Hockey Operations.

Two days later, the Penguins took on the Islanders on February 11.

Of the players who suited up for the Penguins that day, six of them have left the Penguins either by trade or waivers.

Those names: Zach Aston-Reese, Teddy Blueger, Kasperi Kapanen, John Marino, Mike Matheson, and Brandon Tanev.

Also on that roster, but not active in that game was Jared McCann, Frederick Gaudreau, and Evan Rodrigues.

Now, Hextall's first season in the GM chair was a quiet one. The Penguins were humming along in a temporary division as the world was coming out of the COVID-19 pandemic and it was a 56-game shortened season.

His only move was on April 11, 2021, when he sent a 2022 third-round pick and a 2023 conditional fourth-round pick (that became a third) to the Los Angeles Kings for Jeff Carter.

It was that offseason that problems began.

Expansion and Contraction

July 17, 2021, Jared McCann was sent to Toronto for Filip Hallander and a 2023 seventh-round pick.

Four days later, Brandon Tanev was lost to the Seattle Kraken in the NHL Expansion Draft.

Both of them find themselves in Seattle and they both have been productive players helping Seattle work toward a postseason berth in just their second season.

McCann has scored 60 goals, 44 assists, and 104 points in 140 games for the Kraken. Meanwhile, in 99 games for the Kraken, Brandon Tanev has added 22 goals and 22 assists, for 44 points.

Hextall, while the logic at the time was somewhat understandable – getting McCann out of Pittsburgh so he didn't have to be exposed in the expansion draft and lost for nothing, making Seattle take Tanev to get his deal off the cap – it was also quite flawed. It was a very open secret that Jeff Carter's career came down to either playing in Pittsburgh or retirement. Seattle could've taken him but then lost him to retirement. Protecting McCann would've been the smart move.

Instead, he signed Brock McGinn to a four-year, $11 million deal and Danton Heinen to a one-year, $1.1 million deal. They were supposed to replace some of the production and aggression the Penguins had lost in McCann and Tanev.

Across 124 games in Pittsburgh, before he was dealt at this year's trade deadline, McGinn produced 22 goals and 16 assists, for 38 points.

Heinen hasn't done much better.

In 128 games in Pittsburgh, he has scored 24 goals and 27 assists, for 51 points.

For those keeping score, that's 148 points compared to 89.

A big loss for the team and the depth.

Credit when its due

Now, I love a good pile-on as much as the next guy, it's probably why I remain on Twitter, but it would not be fair to not mention some wins for Hextall.

Early in 2022, it became clear that Sam Lafferty was not going to work out in Pittsburgh despite being an Altoona product. He was sent to Chicago in a one-for-one trade that netted the Penguins Alex Nylander, a player that looks poised to make a positive impact with the big club, but more on that later.

He also was able to trade Zach-Aston Reese, Dom Simon, Calle Clang, and a second-round pick to Anaheim in exchange for Rickard Rakell, who is looking like an absolute buzzsaw of a forward. He was also able to retain Rakell on a reasonable deal.

Lastly, he made sure that Malkin and Letang were retained and finished their careers in Pittsburgh. Both deals gave him room to operate with some cap space to ensure Crosby, Malkin, and Letang could be supported.

Or were they?

Cap crunch and trade terms

As of Sunday, March 19, the Penguins have a projected $625,000 in cap space according to our friends at CapFriendly.

Because of some bad contracts and salary cap mismanagement, the Penguins are mostly unable to call up some of their few young players in Wilkes-Barre such as Valterri Puustinen and until recently, Alex Nylander. The same goes for Ty Smith who while he had his stumbles, did not look out of place on an NHL roster.

In the lead-up to the trade deadline, St. Louis threw the Penguins a bone and claimed Kasperi Kapanen off of waivers. They were able to trade Blueger to Vegas and McGinn cleared waivers giving the team the cap space to get a more productive player on the roster and give the forwards more depth.

That cap space was afforded to Mikael Granlund and his $5 million cap hit.

All it took was a second-round pick.

This isn't the first and only time the GM has traded less for more and not in a good way.

Over the summer, Ty Smith was acquired for John Marino. While cap issues have kept Smith in the minors and Marino seemed to be flaming out in Pittsburgh, he's rebounded nicely in New Jersey on a team competing to win the Metropolitan Division.

While Mike Matheson's contract was not a great one, he was a pretty great fit in Pittsburgh's system. He also was sent to Montreal for a more expensive and older defenseman in Jeff Petry.

Under Hextall's watch, the Penguins have gotten older, slower, and less productive.

When you look down the Penguins' list of contracts, it's not promising. While Crosby, Malkin, and Letang remain affordable relative to their production, players like Jeff Carter, Granlund, Bryan Rust, and Jan Rutta are making too much to do too little. While some of them can be chalked up to an unexpected falling off, you simply have to prepare for that possibility once players begin to age past 30.

Not tending the goal

Tristan Jarry has been pulled in four of his last 11 starts and has been in and out of the lineup with injuries this year.

Casey DeSmith has had to start 29 games and has a .907 save percentage.

Both goalies were hurt in the playoffs last year. Tristan Jarry essentially gave away a playoff series in 2021 when the Penguins were clearly the better team against the Islanders. In that same series, Casey DeSmith was on the bench but unable to play due to injury.

Two goalies with similar struggles have been brought back twice after the Penguins looked ready to make deep runs.

There's nothing wrong or even unfair about saying "we would've won if we just got some goaltending." It's the most important position in the sport and a hot goalie can make an average team good and a cold goalie can derail a great team.

Keeping Tristan Jarry around is an understandable move. By all accounts, he's a fierce competitor and has shown flashes of being an elite goaltender. He also deserves to exercise those playoff demons from 2021.

Not making sure there's either a plan B or a 1A in net and opting to just extend his backup is inexcusable.

For a guy who made his bones as a fierce competitor that tended the goal, he's certainly left his team vulnerable in a position that means so much to its success.

Ron Hextall has been the Penguins' general manager for just over two calendar years and in that time, if you were to simply not make some of the moves he made and keep the players he let go, chances are you'd have a better hockey team.

Considering in 2021 they were very successful in a division that included the Capitals, Bruins, Islanders, and Rangers, big changes were not needed.

In conclusion, the Penguins of 2023 are slow, inconsistent, and expensive. When you still have a consistent and productive group of superstars, the burden falls on the general manager to make it work.

Two times is a coincidence but three times indicate a trend. 

For Hextall's Penguins, the trend is downward and it's happening at his own hand. 

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