The updates and statuses on the futures of Evgeni Malkin and Kris Letang were the biggest items at yesterday’s season-ending press conference by Ron Hextall, but there were also a host of other nuggets and thoughts that could shed light on where the Penguins will go from here.
Let’s break some down, from the penguins.com recap of the interview:
- Hextall named Valtteri Puustinen, Kasper Bjorkqvist, Filip Hallander, P.O Joseph and Sam Poulin, “who took his game to another level over the past 55 games,” as prospects out of Wilkes-Barre/Scranton who could potentially start next season in Pittsburgh.
“It’s comforting to us that we have a few kids that are kind of on the verge of coming up and being ready to play at this level, but it’s not forcing them into this level, because you might as well leave them down there,” Hextall said.
The Penguins are going to need some relatively inexpensive players next season, will this be the year the team doesn’t sign so many veterans (like Brian Boyle, Brock McGinn, Zach Aston-Reese, Dominik Simon, etc) and go with a younger wave of players?
In some ways, it could make sense. After a year of AHL seasoning, the team is high on former first round pick Sam Poulin. And they should be, as Hextall mentioned, Poulin was a force in the second-half of the season in the AHL. The coaches and managers have always been high on Filip Hallander and have liked the game of Kasper Bjorkqvist as well.
Along with Drew O’Connor and Radim Zohorna, who aren’t NHL mainstays but do have one-way contracts next year that pay them an NHL salary regardless of what league they’re in, Pittsburgh could be seeing a younger, fresher vibe in the lineup next season.
Oh yeah, and Pierre-Olivier Joseph is not going to be eligible to be assigned to the AHL next year without needing to clear waivers. It’s becoming sink or swim time for him in the Pens’ organization, even though his path to playing time is very blocked right now.
The Penguins are currently operating from a top-down approach, which means all of their attention is currently focused on taking care of those two. They’re two MAJOR pieces of the puzzle, and once the Penguins have clarity with their situations, they can move forward with a plan. But in the meantime, everything else - like whether they need to make changes behind Tristan Jarry on the depth chart, and if they re-sign restricted free agents like Danton Heinen and Kasperi Kapanen - is pretty much on hold.
“We’ll see where guys like Tanger and Geno end up, and then we’ll figure the rest out from there,” Hextall said. “There’s just a lot of hypotheticals in terms of cap space and what we can add at the different positions.”
Clarifying the Malkin and Letang statuses are the key right now to the off-season, and Hextall’s stated priority. Depending on just how those pieces of the puzzle fit in will go a long way to determining which other free agents can still be brought back. That isn’t breaking news or any drastically wild idea, but probably something that needed to be said.
Overall, it doesn’t look like Hextall is planning many huge changes or going to make any emotional reactions to the Pens’ first round loss. His assessment — which is pretty level headed and accurate — is that the close loss could have been a win if not for some unfortunate situations. Hextall’s tone, perhaps influenced by the new ownership group of Fenway Sports, seems to be more “win now” than it has in the past.
“Obviously, we were close. There were some circumstances there which dictated that we didn’t come out on the winning end of it, unfortunately,” Hextall said. “But we felt like we were in it, and we feel like we had a good enough team where we could have gone on a run here. Obviously at the end, you got to get it done. But our plan is to continue on trying to win the Stanley Cup.”
The Fenway Sports Group is completely on board with that plan, with Hextall saying they are totally committed to winning, and so is the entire management group and coaching staff.
“We’re moving forward here trying to be as good as we can be, and be a contender,” Hextall said
That is very reasonable on all accounts. FSG wants lots of tickets sold and their hockey team to contend for a title more than anything. The directive and life-cycle of the Penguins has never not been “try to win at all costs” since dating back to at least 2008 when the team started spending to the salary cap and making moves like the Marian Hossa trade, and for Hextall that goal will still be front of mind this summer as he looks to build another team that can get to the playoffs and try to make a run.