It would be unfair of me to sit here and pretend that I know what the Pittsburgh Penguins ownership group thinks of Ron Hextall and his job security, because quite honestly, I don’t know. And neither does anybody else. for that matter, because pretty much everybody in the ownership group and the front office remains completely silent.
I am just going to look at some things we do know.
The Penguins’ current ownership group did not hire him, and because of that, they have no real loyalty to him.
When asked for his long-term vision and plan for the team, he reportedly told them it was all in his head and “not easily articulated by the written word,” which can not be a great impression for your bosses.
This is also largely his roster. Even if the core players are holdovers from previous regimes, there are only a small handful of players he has not had to re-sign or retain.
Rickard Rakell, Jeff Petry, Jeff Carter, Brock McGinn, Ryan Poehling, Josh Archibald, Mark Friedman, Ty Smith, Dustin Tokarski, Drake Caggiula, and Jan Rutta are his acquisitions, while Evgeni Malkin, Kris Letang, Bryan Rust, Danton Heinen, Kasperi Kapanen, Casey DeSmith, and Chad Ruhwedel are all players he decided to re-sign and retain.
That is a significant portion (18 of the 32 players to play a game this season) of the roster. Well over the majority. It is his team.
His team is in a fight just to make the playoffs.
I do strongly believe they still will end up making the playoffs, and they do still have a pretty significant points percentage lead over Washington, the New York Islanders, Buffalo, and Florida.
I am also not going to criticize him for bringing back Malkin, Letang, Rust, and Rakell. I might quibble a little bit on the price tag for Rust given his age, but along with Sidney Crosby, Jake Guentzel and Jason Zucker that group of players is what is keeping this team in the playoff picture. Do you think they would be in a better position if they had let Malkin and Letang go and replaced them with Vincent Trocheck and somebody that isn’t Letang on defense? No chance. No. Chance.
But when he brought that group back he was telling the hockey world that his team is still capable of competing and winning, and that their goal is going to be to win. You do not bring that group of players back, and acquire even more veterans in the offseason, if you are thinking of starting a rebuild anytime soon. Winning and winning now is still the goal.
That is where Hextall might be starting to step onto thin ice because what has he done to help get that group closer to winning? Or to help give them everything they need to win.
Entering this season the biggest question mark areas for me (and others might disagree) were the bottom-six and the goaltending.
The goaltending, as we have discussed, has remained the same. That has its pros and cons. The pro is that Tristan Jarry is very good when he is healthy. The con is that has not been enough, and when he has not been healthy DeSmith has not been consistent enough to count on (though he should get credit for helping the Penguins steal two absolutely MASSIVE points on Tuesday night against the Colorado Avalanche. And those points were absolutely stolen. I am a harsh critic when he plays poorly, but credit where it is due. He bailed them out on Tuesday night).
The bottom-six is as bad as it has been in years.
Those two things are Hextall’s biggest failings. And they might be what ultimately holds this team back.
The goaltending situation is at least SOMEWHAT defensible because the market is slim, goaltending can be difficult to project, and they do have a good starter. It is not Hextall’s fault (or anybody else’s) that Jarry gets injured. He could do something to find a more consistent backup, but again, that can be tough. Not impossible. But at least tough. Sometimes you are just throwing darts at a board when it comes to goalies. There is a healthy amount of randomness there.
But the bottom-six? Woof.
That has just been mis-step after mis-step, from messing up the Seattle expansion draft which ultimately cost the Penguins two players (Brandon Tanev and Jared McCann), to the pre-mature and costly re-signing of Carter to be the third-line center and the acquisition of McGinn in place of McCann and Tanev (an inferior player to both). It has simply been a revolving door of mediocrity and it is the area that needs the most attention prior to the trade deadline.
The question is whether or not Hextall can address it, or if he is willing to address it.
He is well known for being a very inactive general manager in terms of moves, and he seems extremely hesitant to trade the Penguins’ first-round pick.
But if he is not willing to trade that pick, how much is he actually going to be able to acquire? The Penguins’ prospect pool is not particularly deep, and outside of Pierre-Olivier Joseph there are not many young players in the organization that will have a significant trade value. And if given the choice, I would rather keep Joseph than the first-round pick.
Ideally that pick is going to fall somewhere in the 17-32 range, and that pick will have way more value as a trade asset than it will as a long-term building block. The odds of somebody being picked in that spot significantly impacting the long-term future of the Penguins is probably less than 20 percent. That is not a statement on the Penguins’ scouting and player development, it is a statement on the value of that pick.
Odds are you are going to get Kasperi Kapanen and Samuel Poulin in that range.
Aggressively shop that pick for somebody that can help you now.
But this is what brings me to the make-or-break feeling with Hextall.
He has been here for multiple years now and has his fingerprints all over this roster. It is built to win now. But if it does not win now, if it does not make the playoffs because of the shortcomings he has let slip in to the roster, and if he does not do something to adequately address those short-comings in the next few weeks, how does ownership confidently bring him back? What argument would there be for him being the guy to guide the team through a win-now mode or a rebuild mode?
This should be a big stretch for Hextall. He needs to do something to help fix the weaknesses he is responsible for, and he needs to get this team in the playoffs.
Anything else is just not acceptable. It should not be viewed as acceptable by ownership.