There is no doubt the Pittsburgh Penguins front office jobs were highly sought after given the reputation, success, resources, and expectations. Brian Burke sounded downright giddy at the thought of working for the Penguins, while he and new general manager Ron Hextall said all the right things at their introductory press conferences on Tuesday.
But for as exciting as this job might be, it is not going to be a particularly easy job. It might even be pretty daunting when you dig below the surface of a couple of superstars and recent championships.
The three best players (Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin, Kris Letang) are in their mid-30s and on the downside of their careers, while two of them will have their contracts expire after next season in a league where the salary cap is going to remain pretty stagnant.
The farm system and draft pick pool (at least for this upcoming class) has been completely gutted with little long-term help on the immediate horizon.
There are some sketchy long-term contracts on the books that will almost certainly need to be addressed in one form or another.
In short, there are some challenges. So let us take a look at the biggest issues the Burke-Hextall team are going to have to tackle.
The Farm System
This is probably the biggest one, and it is the one area where I am most optimistic about Hextall because this is where he thrived with Los Angeles and Philadelphia. Building a long-term, stable talent pool that kept pumping out NHL quality players.
There is no question he had some flaws with the Flyers that ultimately led to his dismissal, but he managed to rebuild the farm system and the team as a whole without having to send it completely into the tank for an extended period of time. He stockpiled draft picks while still managing to put — for the most part — a competitive NHL team on the ice.
When you look at the Penguins farm system, it is thin.
Pierre-Olivier Joseph is the bright spot right now given his immediate impact on defense (where he should remain a regular on a permanent basis this season), and Samuel Poulin and Nathan Legare look promising, but there is very little in the way of excitement after that. This has to be rebuild.
Word is that Hextall impressed ownership with his vision of still competing while focussing on draft and development, but that is a difficult trick to pull off. A lot of times when you try to accomplish both you end up getting stuck in a messy middle ground of mediocrity where you are never good enough to win, and never bad enough to potentially land a franchise changing player without some MAJOR draft lottery luck.
No matter how they do it, restocking the farm system has to be the top priority.
Getting Creative With Contracts
From everything we have been led to believe, as long as Evgeni Malkin wants to remain a Penguin, he will remain a Penguin. That means a new contract is on the horizon for him.
But Kris Letang? Not as much of a given.
Same goes for Bryan Rust, who is also eligible for unrestricted free agency after next season. Those situations are going to be complicated enough in trying to figure out financials for players that won championships for the organizations and are among the all-time greats in team history, but also are not the players they were when they were doing that. The salary cap is only going to make it more complicated.
But signing new contracts is not the only issue that needs to be dealt with. They also have to figure out how to handle some of the less desirable contracts that are leftover from the Jim Rutherford era, specifically Mike Matheson and Brandon Tanev.
I have grown to love everything about the chaos Tanev brings to the ice, and he IS a very good player. But between him and Matheson they have more $8 million going to a third/fourth liner and a third-pairing defender for the next four years after this season. Matheson is signed for another year beyond that. That is a concern. Two of Hextall’s biggest trades in Philadelphia revolved around jettisoning contracts, while also managing to get useful assets back in return.
Can he repeat that magic here?
Their own ideas
Hextall talked on Tuesday about how he is not a one-trick pony, and that even though he has a reputation as a patient builder from his days in Philadelphia he also learned some things from that experience. That maybe he would, or could, do things differently. But I am not sure how much people in this position really change from job to job. They might gain more insight, they might look for different things, they might find more success, they might adapt to a changing game or marketplace. But deep down at their core I think they stay true to what they are and who they are.
If you are aggressive by nature, you will stay aggressive.
If you are patient by nature, you will stay patient.
Jim Rutherford was the same type general manager in Pittsburgh as he was in Carolina. Peter Chiarelli did not change much from Boston to Edmonton. Brian Burke has always looked for the same things from team to team. I do not think Ken Holland or Steve Yzerman have dramatically changed approaches.
Maybe I am wrong and off base on this, but I think what you saw from Hextall in Philadelphia in terms of approach and overall philosophy is pretty close to what you are going to get in Pittsburgh.
What is interesting about that is that philosophy and approach seems to differ a bit from the way Brian Burke built his teams. While Hextall is more patient and reserved, Burke is more aggressive and vocal and has a bit more Rutherford in him (though maybe not to the same degree in terms of aggressively making trades on a weekly basis).
Their teams have also taken on different identities. Burke is known for wanting his teams to have “truculence,” and the longer he is with a team the more physical they become and the more they trend to the top of the league in fighting. Hextall’s Flyers teams tended to drift in the opposite direction, to the point where they were the least fighting team in the league (unheard of for the Flyers) when he left.
Different ideas and philosophy are not necessarily a bad thing. It helps to have different voices in the room that can challenge each other. I am just curious to see how much input Burke has in the construction of the roster and the direction the team takes, versus how much of his role is to oversee things and act as a middle man between the general manager and ownership.
In short: I am intrigued by what Hextall might want to do and the direction he might want to go. I am not as sold on the type of teams that Burke has built in his most recent stops — both in terms of style and success — in Toronto and Calgary.