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Ron Hextall and Brian Burke’s recent comments and to what to expect moving forward

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What to take out of quotes by the Pens’ executives towards off-season plans?

Pittsburgh Penguins GM Ron Hextall and President of Hockey Operations Brian Burke have spoken to the media in the past 48 hours or so. Hextall held a press conference via zoom, and Burke appeared on the Pens’ flagship radio station for an interview.

We covered the biggest takeaway here — that Hextall definitively said that all of Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin and Kris Letang will be back in Pittsburgh for 2021-22.

Let’s take a peak at some other comments..

Hextall on the coaching staff:

We’re (Hextall and Mike Sullivan) aligned. We’ve got a really good team. I always mention Jimmy Rutherford when I say that because he built the team. Jimmy did a very good job here. Burkie and I inherited a very good team. Top players. Really good support players.

“We were very pleased with our coaching staff. Having five of our top nine forwards out and continuing to find a way to win is hats off to the coaches. It was a tough year. Our entire staff did a terrific job. There were a lot of challenges in the hotels on the road and all the testing here and whatnot. It was a challenging year for everybody. The way we lost in the playoffs obviously leaves a sour taste in your mouth. There were a lot of positives with the club and the entire organization.”

Burke on Mike Sullivan:

“We think he should be Coach of the Year. We think he did a phenomenal job. Not only is he going to be back, no other outcome was discussed. So that makes me mad. When a guy has to read that his job was considered for termination and it never was, that’s not right.”

Any time a team loses early, fans will clamor or at least wonder out loud if a coaching change is coming or necessary, but Hextall and especially Burke put a pretty emphatic end to Mike Sullivan’s status. It makes sense, Sullivan led the team to a division win with a very injured roster this year. The Pens were the NHL’s second best team from when Hextall/Burke were hired over the last 45 games of the season. There was a lot to like!

Hextall is a very deliberate and thoughtful speaker, and his answer praises the coaching staff but quickly pivots to almost talking about the support staff and team operations at large when thinking about the unique challenges of staying pretty much COVID-free this season. Intentional? Not? Could read into either, but I’d watch the statuses of assistant coach Mike Velucci and goalie coach Mike Buckley. If there are any changes to the staff, it’s likely it would be those names.

Burke on Tristan Jarry:

“Tristan Jarry was the reason we won the division. He was the reason we had that run (in March) that we had and got in the playoffs at all. I’m not happy with his playoffs. He’s not happy with his playoffs...But he’s the reason we got there.”

“[Keeping Jarry + Casey DeSmith is] certainly the plan today. That can change with a phone call if someone throws something at you that makes sense. But that is the plan today. Absolutely. If that’s how we open camp, that’s fine with us.”

Hextall’s thoughts on Jarry:

Tristan did a good job for us this year. We had very good goaltending from both (Jarry and Casey DeSmith) guys. Obviously, you saw what happened in Game 5, an unfortunate error there. Game 6 wasn’t his best. We wouldn’t have been where we were without Tristan. We all have to remember that Tristan is a young player, he’s going to learn from this and he’s going to come back better from this in September. We all learn lessons in life. If you’re going to be a goaltender in this league, you’re going to have your ups and downs as pretty much every guy does. You learn from it and get better. We’re confident Tristan is going to get better.”

Hextall was pretty diplomatic here. I’m not really buying what he’s selling on Jarry (26, with 107 career NHL games over parts of five seasons) being all that “young”. But, he largely has no other options to publicly skewer a player under contract for next season, so it’s also not worth getting worked up over.

Both Burke and Hextall do deservedly point out that Jarry’s strong play in February and March put the Penguins were they wanted to be for a playoff spot. They did not flat out say that they will seek upgrades or improvement in net due to playoff performance, but certainly can’t dismiss it either.

Burke on the style of play:

“We are all in alignment. We want to keep our Penguins DNA. High speed, highly skilled hockey. But I do think we need to get bigger and tougher. And guys that can play Penguins hockey that are big and ugly are hard to find. But there is no question in my mind that we need to get bigger.”

Hextall on big and tough:

“We’re excited about this group. Sid, Tanger, Geno, they’re not in their 20s anymore. But bringing Jeff Carter in and having a deep team, a hardworking team, a skilled team, a fast team … would we like to add a little bit of size? Of course we’d like to add some size and toughness. There’s not a lot out there. We’ll make adjustments. But if we go into next season with this group, we’re comfortable with that.

“There’s just not a lot of it (size and toughness) around anymore. The standard for a player to be able to play in your top 12 forwards has gone way up. There’s not a lot of guys that have enough skill, skate well enough and that bring that other element. There’s not a lot of it around. It is in demand. Teams that have those top guys aren’t going to part with it. If we can find it and the price is reasonable, we’ll certainly do it. But we’re comfortable with our team. We had a real good regular season and played well in the playoffs. That doesn’t mean we won’t look to get better. We will.”

Hextall’s latter thoughts are encouraging, and enlightening. The Pens were reportedly after Anaheim’s Nic Deslauriers around the deadline. At 6’3 220 pounds and with 19 fights since the start of the 2019-20 season, he’s one of the toughest customers around. However, Deslauriers can’t skate or have the skill to take a regular shift for a contender like the Penguins and would have been a horrible fit of just adding a big tough guy who isn’t good enough to contribute much of anything. They didn’t make that trade, and it was for the better, it would have been nothing but a wasted move, cost and roster spot.

Any and every manager will want to sculpt a bigger, tougher, meaner, faster team, there is no sin in that. Burke giving a nod to retaining the “Penguins DNA” or speed and skill is a nice nod that reasonable adjustments and additions will be made to augment what Pittsburgh does best, rather than a complete remold of simply creating an ill-fitting, out-dated, inferior team.

Final thoughts

Hextall:

“There’s a special drive to this group and a chemistry that we like.”

Burke:

“The team did well. It deserves to be rewarded with being kept intact”

Thankfully, the management team recognizes that the Penguins had a good season, played well and had a lot of great inputs and processes from the playoffs. They lost in the first round due to goaltending on each end and not being able to maximize some outputs and results, but such can be life in the razor thin margins between success and failure in the playoffs.

This isn’t a team that needs some or most of it’s best players traded, a coaching overhaul and a complete shift in philosophy. New management seems to not be as prone to emotional or reactionary changes and will plot a course forward to attempt to improve the Pens were they can for next season in search of a fourth Stanley Cup in the Sidney Crosby era.