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Hextall varies from Rutherford in committing to Penguins core

NHL: FEB 14 Canadiens at Penguins
Kris Letang celebrates after scoring a power play goal with Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin against the Montreal Canadiens on Feb. 14, 2020, at PPG Paints Arena.
Photo by Jeanine Leech/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

Even while playing on a knee that needed to be surgically repaired and missing two outings of a six-game series, Evgeni Malkin still tied for second in Penguins 2021 postseason production with five points (1-4—5).

He trailed only Kris Letang, who paced Pittsburgh with six points (1-5—6) from the blue line. Still, those performances aren’t enough to quash the trade murmurs inevitably swirling around the two after the Penguins’ third consecutive early playoff exit.

General manager Ron Hextall and former GM Jim Rutherford, who manned the Penguins’ helm for the two prior playoff runs, have approached their plans for Pittsburgh’s core players very differently through these past three offseasons.

Here are Hextall’s comments on the security of the Penguins’ core, spoken in a postseason press conference on June 2, 2021, following a Game 6 loss to the New York Islanders.

We can compare Hextall’s “I expect to have these guys back next year for sure” that to what Jim Rutherford said 10 months ago in a post-season press conference on Aug. 11, 2020, just after the Penguins had been bounced from the qualifying round by the Montreal Canadiens:

That raised some possibility of an eventual trade, but it’s still more certain than what Rutherford said back in 2019. In a post-season press conference on April 18, just after the Penguins had been swept in four games by the Islanders, he stated:

He followed that up with more comments on the possibility of trading a core player during an interview with a Pittsburgh radio station on June 17, 2019.

Rutherford’s comments raised some uncertainty about what return he would need to justify an exchange, although he would later walk back how willing he’d really ever been to dump Letang.

His vacillation marks a decidedly different approach than Hextall shutting down the possibility of a core trade in his first postseason interview.

That matters, and it matters even more than Rutherford’s postseason comments from the past few seasons. Dealing a blockbuster trade is a rare occurrence in the NHL, but both Malkin and Letang’s contracts end and leave them with UFA status at the conclusion of the 2021-22 campaign. Next season will see Pittsburgh’s GM deciding whether or not those two will remain Penguins.

Hextall remained coy about contract negotiations, other than describing “discussions that are certainly ongoing within our staff”, and playoff exit interviews don’t always align with GMs’ future moves.

Still, his willingness to state that these players will “for sure” be Penguins next season might indicate that management is looking for extensions rather than trades.