Officially, Ron Hextall was named the eleventh general manager in the history of the Pittsburgh Penguins on February 9th, 2021. By that true anniversary date, the season will have kicked up, so this pause in the scheduling is a perfect time to take a step back and see what Hextall has done during his stint with the Pens.
Here was the lineup for the first game that Hextall was with Pittsburgh. This sets the base of what he inherited from the former manager Jim Rutherford. Not in the lineup due to injury were Brian Dumoulin, Jared McCann, Marcus Pettersson and Evan Rodrigues.
H O C K E Y T I M E !#LetsGoPens pic.twitter.com/1RScgawpmf— Pittsburgh Penguins (@penguins) February 11, 2021
Overall, there hasn’t been a lot of roster turnover in the last 24 months. Eight forwards in the lineup for Hextall’s first game are still with the team. Include two injured defensemen from Hextall’s first night in 2021 (Dumoulin and Pettersson) and five defenders from that roster are still with Pittsburgh, as are both of the goalies.
The lack of changes could be taken as a positive, or it could be a negative. The team that Hextall jumped aboard with was en route to a first place finish in the NHL’s “Eastern Division”, putting up 77 points in a shortened 56 game season. That team that would stick largely together then finished 2021-22 with 103 points and comfortably made the playoffs again. This season in 2022-23 hasn’t always been as comfortable, but the Penguins with 57 points in 49 games are on track for a 98-point season and another likely playoff appearance.
Ironically as a former goaltender himself, the team’s outcome was handcuffed by goaltending in both of Hextall’s seasons. In 2021, Tristan Jarry was off his game and played the worst of his career in a stunning first round sweep at the hands of the Islanders. In the 2022 playoffs, the Penguins out-played the Rangers on the ice, but injuries to Jarry and Casey DeSmith left them to be eventually be out-lasted by the other New York team.
Via trade, Hextall’s major moves can be summed up to just three days so far.
The first in 2021 while still relatively new on the job, Hextall assessed and filled the Penguins’ biggest need in 2021 (and probably longer than that): he added a quality third line center. Pittsburgh traded a 2022 third round pick to get the services of Jeff Carter from the Los Angeles Kings. To make matters better, the Kings even retained the maximum they were allowed to (50%) of Carter’s contract. Though in recent months Carter’s play has fallen off, it’s worth remembering and pointing out that Carter scored 13 goals and 16 points in his first 19 games with the Pens (regular season and playoffs).
Aside from the expansion draft, which deserves more detail in a section below, the second major trade that Hextall made as Pens GM was in March 2022. Pittsburgh sent a 2022 second round pick, goalie prospect Calle Clang and then a pair of lower-end NHL players to balance salaries in order to acquire Rickard Rakell. This move also paid dividends for the Pens, adding a skilled winger who produced 13 points in his first 19 regular season games prior to being injured in Game 1 of the playoffs.
The third major transaction was actually two trades made on the very same day in July of 2022. At this point Hextall decided to revamp the blueline and in separate deals sent out John Marino, Mike Matheson and a 2023 fourth round pick. It brought back Jeff Petry, Ty Smith, Ryan Poehling and a 2023 third round pick to Pittsburgh. Petry has been a solid top-four defender, but a lack of cap space has kept Smith in the minors, save a handful of games where NHL injuries required his presence.
The early success of Carter came with something of a double-edged sword for Pittsburgh when the Seattle Kraken expansion draft happened in the summer of 2021. Suddenly, the Pens had too many quality forwards and not enough spots to protect them. Hextall’s strategy became clear: to focus on centers. He decided the Pens would protect Carter and Teddy Blueger from expansion, leaving all of Brandon Tanev, Jared McCann, Jason Zucker and Evan Rodrigues as potentially exposed players.
Apparently not wanting to risk losing McCann to Seattle for nothing, the Pens traded him just prior to the expansion draft to Toronto for prospect Filip Hallander. Seattle ended up selecting Tanev from the Pens.
In what became a costly, Pittsburgh managed to lose two players in the expansion process (though mitigated by adding a young player in Hallander). In the 18 months since, Hallander has not yet become an NHL regular.
To replace the departed Tanev, Hextall moved in free agency to add winger Brock McGinn for a similar amount and the exact same four year term that Tanev had remaining at the time on his contract. That would be the only major add for Pittsburgh in 2021’s free agent class. The Pens did add a valuable bargain bin signing in Danton Heinen, who went on to score 18 goals in 2021-22 in a similar role and setup that McCann had previously filled.
Hextall made what now appears to be a blunder in January 2022, extending Carter’s contract for two seasons (through 2023-24) with a full no movement and no trade clause. At the time it was a long-range bet on an aging player to remain a strong third line player. Carter, now 38-years old, is still on the books for next year and regressing into a shadow of an NHL player.
The next major moves came in the spring/summer of 2022, when Hextall had to navigate the tricky waters of extending franchise icons. The Evgeni Malkin negotiation went right to the brink of free agency, but Hextall was able to secure the contract on a favorable team hit of $6.1 million annually for four seasons. Similarly, Kris Letang was also inked to a nice cap hit of a matching $6.1 million) but in exchange the team gave the 35-year old defender a whopping six years on his extension.
Those moves rounded out earlier signings in the cycle, where Hextall kept Rickard ($5.0m for six years) and Bryan Rust ($5.125 for six) on long-term contracts.
In the open free agent pool, Pittsburgh added a veteran defender with championship experience in Jan Rutta ($2.75m for three seasons) and then also sought to protect the services of Kasperi Kapanen by giving the arbitration-eligible player first a qualifying offer, and then a two-year contract.
With a stated goal to enhance Pittsburgh’s thin prospect pool, Hextall has openly set a course with the objective to keep and use first round picks. The 2021 first round pick was already dealt by the previous GM before Hextall was hired, but he kept and used his 2022 top pick on defender Owen Pickering. The Pens still are currently holding their first and second round picks in 2023 and 2024.
In terms of cap management, Hextall has the Pens painted in a corner with multi-year signings he made for McGinn, Rutta, Kapanen and Carter. All of these players are down the lineup, and none are particularly standing out as helpful.
Through no fault of his own, both off-seasons have been turbulent managerially speaking, with the 2021 Seattle expansion and then the unique timing of all the contracts to key players that ended in 2022. Hextall’s marks for these summers warrant different grades, in hindsight and retrospect the 2021 summer was costly to the Pens’ future to replace Tanev and McCann with McGinn and Hallander. The 2022 summer was handled more appropriately to retain the services of Malkin and Letang (as well as Rust and Rakell).
Ron Hextall has provided a steady hand for the late-stage Sidney Crosby era. Most of the team that he had in place is still around. All things considered, the team has a bigger troubled area now then when he took over when it comes to creating a capable bottom-six forward group - due to losses not properly replaced with the departures of players like Tanev, McCann and Rodrigues. This likely is the prime area for him to address and make changes ahead of the 2023 trade deadline in order to give the team a boost for the stretch run.