Pittsburgh Penguins general manager, Ron Hextall, gave his end-of-season press conference yesterday, one week after the Penguins were eliminated from the Stanley Cup playoffs at the hands of the New York Islanders.
Included in his presser was an answer to a question regarding the long-term statuses of Kris Letang and Evgeni Malkin, both of whom have contracts that expire at the end of the 2021-22 season:
Ron Hextall on contract extensions for Evgeni Malkin and Kris Letang: "Those are discussions that are certainly ongoing right now within our staff. ... We see a future with this core. These guys have been here a long time. I expect to have these guys back next year, for sure."— Pens Inside Scoop (@PensInsideScoop) June 2, 2021
Hextall’s words on the matter are the first public indications that contract extensions for both players are, at least, in motion, which is a positive for the team, despite what some Twitter and Facebook commenters may lead you to believe. Sportsnet’s Elliotte Friedman speculated on the futures of the three-time Stanley Cup winners in one of his most recent “31 Thoughts” pieces; he believes the veterans will return to Pittsburgh.
Letang will carry a cap hit of $7.25 million through next season, while Malkin’s contract clocks in at $9.5 million.
Letang finished this season with seven goals and 45 points in 55 games played, averaging 24:39 in ice time while also carrying a 49.8 Corsi For percentage and a 49.7 Fenwick For percentage.
Malkin was limited to eight goals and 28 points in 33 regular season games. His advanced possession metrics were tallied at a 51.4 and a 51.6 CF percentage and FF percentage, respectively.
Whatever their next contracts look like, with Letang just turning 34 and Malkin turning 35 in July, both players are likely to see a pay cut with their best years behind them.
Hextall, a former NHL goaltender in his own right, threw his support behind Tristan Jarry after Jarry’s less-than-stellar postseason run:
Ron Hextall on Jarry: "Tristan did a good job for us this year. We wouldn't have been where we were without Tristan. We all have to remember Tristan is a young player. He's going to learn from this and come back better in September."— Pens Inside Scoop (@PensInsideScoop) June 2, 2021
Jarry concluded the postseason with a 2-4 record, an .888 save percentage, and a 3.18 goals-against average. Hextall is not going to publicly shame his own player, but one has to wonder if this is just lip service, and Hextall and company will be analyzing the free agent and/or trade market for the Penguins’ next netminder? Could Anaheim Ducks goalie and Whitehall, PA native John Gibson be in the cards?
The championship window is still open:
Ron Hextall: "We have some pretty special players. They're obviously not in their 20s anymore, but are still playing at a high level, so we'll be in a win-now mode (next year)." Said they'll balance giving away futures with finding ways to make the team better in the present.— Pens Inside Scoop (@PensInsideScoop) June 2, 2021
Some will argue that the Penguins need to start restocking their prospect cupboards, and Hextall is the right man for that job based on his successful draft history in Philadelphia, but as long as you have 87, 71, and 58 on the same roster, the goal should always remain the same.
Anyone who watched the Penguins-Islanders series saw the difference in physicality between both clubs. The Islanders are built to throw their weight around, whereas the Penguins are not. GMRH seems like a proponent of adding a bit of a physical edge to his team, but knows that is easier said than done:
Ron Hextall: "We’d like to add a little bit of size, a little bit of toughness, yes. It would be nice, but there’s not a lot out there. We’ll look at what’s out there and we’ll make adjustments, but if we go into the next season with this group, we’re comfortable."— Pens Inside Scoop (@PensInsideScoop) June 2, 2021
Don’t sacrifice the identity off this team, which was largely built around speed and skill, to become a goon squad. Hextall is right: finding a player that has an offensive pulse in addition to being a bigger body is a great idea, but it’s not that simple. The Blake Wheelers and Anthony Manthas of the NHL are rightfully coveted by their teams.
Hextall went on to commend his players and coaching staff for navigating a turbulent, COVID-infused season.
The press conference concluded with an eye towards the future. Blowing everything up is not the answer to the Penguins’ postseason problems:
Ron Hextall: "There's a special drive to this group and a chemistry that we like, and we'll do everything we can to get better this summer at every position, and we'll see what comes our way. But our goal next year is to come back and make the playoffs and hopefully go on a run."— Pens Inside Scoop (@PensInsideScoop) June 2, 2021
Hextall gave all the right answers in this briefing. And now the real work begins.
The 57-year-old Manitoba native was more of an observer when he was hired by the organization back in February. His first, real transaction as GM, the Jeff Carter acquisition, has since been lauded by players, fans, and media members alike.
While the Penguins lack meaningful draft capital and are going to face an uphill battle with the flat salary cap, Hextall seems ready to embrace this challenge of maximizing the final years of the Crosby-Malkin era while also building towards a competitive future.