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Where it went off the rails for Ron Hextall and the Penguins

A look at the painful stint of Ron Hextall as Penguins’ GM

NHL: FEB 20 Islanders at Penguins Photo by Jeanine Leech/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

The Penguins delivered the expected news today: Ron Hextall is out. After just over two years as the Pittsburgh Penguins general manager, the team relieved him of duties after failing to make the playoffs this season.

There were plenty of good reasons for that, with a mountain management decisions that rendered the Pens ineffective and impotent.

Here are the six biggest reasons that sealed Hextall’s fate, in chronological order.

#1: 2021 expansion draft fiasco

The train started to go off the tracks with the decisions leading up to the Seattle expansion draft in the summer of 2021. The Penguins used their seven forward protection spots on a fourth line forward in Teddy Blueger and did not have room to keep Jared McCann, so they flipped him to Toronto in a trade. That hasn’t worked out yet, since the main return of Filip Hallander has failed to make an NHL impact besides a few brief cameos caused by other injuries. McCann has gone to have two very successful seasons, scoring 120 points in 153 games since leaving Pittsburgh.

Pittsburgh would lose Brandon Tanev to expansion, and replaced his role and almost all of the salary saved on a player with much less fire and effectiveness in Brock McGinn in another downgrade.

Expansion is always bound to hurt strong teams, but any way you slice it the bottom line is that Pens suffered a lot more damage than they needed to, in a self-inflicted manner to boot.

#2: The terms of the Jeff Carter extension

In January of 2022, the Penguins handed a then-37 year old forward a two-year contract to buy his age-38 and 39 seasons. That in itself could have been a major red flag to bet against Father Time.

But the particulars of the contract made the deal crippling. Carter was given a full no movement clause, he can not be traded or waived without his consent. It was also structured to give him slightly more money in the first year, thereby front-loading the deal and making it buyout proof in terms of his future cap hit.

As a result, the Pens locked themselves into a $3.125 million cap hit for Carter in 2023-24, regardless of what happens next. To make matters worse, Carter’s ability to play in the NHL has completely gone off a cliff - scoring only 21 goals and 50 points in the 121 games since he inked his contract (compared to the 24 goals and 40 points he scored in 54 games, counting playoffs, that he produced as a Penguin prior to signing it).

#3: Issuing a qualifying offer to Kasperi Kapanen

In the summer of 2022, Hextall painted himself into a corner by giving a $3.2 million qualifying offer to Kasperi Kapanen, despite the player coming off a crummy season where he was a healthy scratch and often demoted down the lineup in the games he played.

This move was a lesson in opportunity cost, taking up what little valuable available cap space that the team could have negotiated with Evan Rodrigues, or find a different forward in free agency in that price range like Andreas Athanasiou or Max Domi.

To make matters worse, Kapanen again struggled mightily in Pittsburgh, often times a non-factor before being waived. Qualifying Kapanen and locking him into a relatively high salary was a move inexplicable in the moment, and did not pay off.

#4: The 2022 summer defense overhaul

In theory, Hextall’s decisions last off-season regarding the defense were sound. The Pens needed changes and upgrades. They got the former, but not the latter in a pair of trades on the same July day. Pittsburgh shipped Mike Matheson to Montreal for Jeff Petry and then also sent John Marino to New Jersey for Ty Smith and a third round draft pick.

By results, the outcome didn’t play. Marino had frustrated the Pens by stagnating offensively, but his strong defensive inputs were missed. The main piece of his return, Smith, was stuck in the minors for the season, outside of a nine-game NHL cameo that only happened due to other injuries.

In Petry, the Penguins hoped to add a valuable veteran presence who would eat minutes, be productive and solidify the defense. To an extent, Petry provided that but also at times looked his advanced age (34) and carries a significant $6.25 million cap hit for the next two seasons. Injuries and inconsistent play also mired Petry, who did not have a smooth or tremendously positive impact.

Also part of the problem in this exercise was the mindset. The team did not consider or actively shop Brian Dumoulin, but they did offer Marcus Pettersson in trades and make him available. Fortunately for them, there were no takers on Pettersson, and he performed well. Dumoulin’s struggles and decline only continued.

As a further head-scratcher, the team signed veteran lower pair defender Jan Rutta, when they already had Chad Ruhwedel and Mark Friedman under contract for much friendlier deals, and performing well in limited roles.

All of those pieces and changes did not fit and the group added up to less than the sum of their parts. It is was a misguided adventure that weakened the team in 2022-23.

#5: 2023 trade deadline disaster

After months of inactivity and making no moves while his team floundered, what Hextall did and did not do at this past trade deadline put the final nail in the coffin of an unsuccessful season. Kapanen and McGinn were finally sent packing after failing to perform. That space was not used wisely, bringing in a replacement who struggled mightily as well in Mikael Granlund.

Left untouched was the goalie spot, where Tristan Jarry admitted he was banged up and injured all season long. Jarry gutted out the rest of the year, but only with an .890 save% after returning from a February injury.

Hextall’s failure to address the goalie position and ride with damaged goods in Jarry ended up being a predictably poor decision, and his major move to add Granlund did not provide any spark of difference to fix the third line.

#6: The degradation of the supporting cast

The splits at 5v5 for the team was absolutely striking and clearly define Hextall’s failure to build even a somewhat competent supporting cast around Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin.

The Penguins received the good fortune to have both Crosby and Malkin play all 82 games this year. The two stars were extremely productive, combining for 176 total points. Even then, the Pens had to fight tooth and nail and couldn’t secure a playoff spot.

Why? Not because the aging core or star players didn’t hold up their end of the bargain, but because management failed to provide the necessary supporting decisions.

To illustrate this, here is Pittsburgh at 5v5 this season.

With both Crosby+Malkin: 1 goal for, 0 goals against (+1)
Crosby: 67 goals for, 51 goals against (+16)
Malkin: 53 goals for, 50 goals against (+3)
When neither Crosby or Malkin on ice: 47 goals for, 71 goals against (-24)

Here are the same 5v5 team splits in Hextall’s first season, a 56-game shortened 2020-21 campaign. The Penguins won their division and the roster was virtually untouched from what he inherited (aside from the Carter addition).

With both Crosby+Malkin: 0 goals for, 0 goals against (0)
Crosby: 40 goals for, 31 goals against (+9)
Malkin: 20 goals for, 21 goals against (-1)
When neither Crosby or Malkin on ice: 66 goals for, 48 goals against (+18)

The change from the supporting cast going from a major positive two seasons ago into a complete liability this year is the leading reason that Pittsburgh is in the situation they are currently in.

In the short 2021 season, the supporting players chipped in an impressive 1.17 goals-per-game. That number wilted to an untenable .57 in 2022-23. Defensively, the impacts were nearly identical: with the Pens conceding 0.86 goals/game against in 2021 without their stars and an almost matching 0.87 against this season.

The degradation of the roster to lose talented players like McCann, Tanev, Rodrigues and watch Carter become ineffective while Blueger, Kapanen, McGinn and Zach Aston-Reese all stumbled and regressed was a problem to the extent that not even the star players could pull the team out from under.

For all those reasons and more, the Penguins find themselves looking for a new manager to steer the ship and set the course in the closing days of Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin.

Ron Hextall’s brief stint in Pittsburgh demonstrated the reverse Midas touch, where be it for bad luck, bad evaluations or general inactivity, almost every move completed ended up chipping away and turning a once strong team into a non-playoff caliber group.

The next manager will have to pick up the pieces and attempt to move on. The ownership statement regarding Hextall’s firing included a key line, “we believe in our core group of players and the goal of contending for the Stanley Cup has not changed.”

The mission will remain unchanged in trying to put together a team that can challenge and contend through the end days of Crosby and Malkin. The next GM will have to do better than the last one to get back to that level.