Pretty much everything that Ron Hextall has touched over the past two years as general manager of the Pittsburgh Penguins has turned out to be a mess that has held back the 2022-23 roster (and perhaps behind). There is, however, one significant exception to that, and it is the trade for (and re-signing of) winger Rickard Rakell.
Rakell has been the obvious bright spot of the Hextall era, and he made another significant impact on Thursday night by scoring a power play goal in the Penguins’ 4-1 win over the Minnesota Wild.
It was a huge goal for a power play unit that has badly struggled in what was almost certainly a must-win game for the Penguins.
Everybody needed it.
With that goal Rakell now has 28 goals in 78 games, his most since the 2017-18 season, and gives him a crack at the 30-goal mark.
It is not just the goal totals that has made Rakell such a positive contributor to the Penguins,.
He has been one of their most consistent players all season and has made pretty much every line he has been a part of better due to his presence. Whether it is playing alongside Sidney Crosby on the top line, Evgeni Malkin on the second line, or even getting some minutes on a Frankenstein-like third line with Mikael Granlund and Drew O’Connor, every line that he has been a part of has rapidly improved.
Pretty much everything about Rakell’s time in Pittsburgh so far has been a pleasant surprise.
When the Penguins traded for him at the deadline a little over a year ago I was mostly fine with it. My expectations were not sky high, but I felt it was a good gamble for a rental that did not cost them a ton in terms of assets. I figured out of all of the Penguins’ pending unrestricted free agents he was the most likely to go, and even though his offensive numbers had dropped from where he was at his peak in 2016-2018, I thought getting out of Anaheim and into Pittsburgh with top-tier centers might help him rediscover that scoring touch.
It not only has, but I have also been impressed with all aspects of Rakell’s game.
His playmaking, his ability to drive possession, and his vision all stand out and make him way more than just a shooter that relies on his goal-scoring to be useful or productive.
He is simply an excellent player that seems to have rejuvenated his career in Pittsburgh. Getting him re-signed (six-years, $30 million) was also a shock because from the very beginning of his tenure in Pittsburgh he seemed to be the most obvious rental candidate.
Signing non-stars into their mid-30s always carries some risk, and there remains a chance that the final couple of years of Rakell’s deal are not great values against the cap, but that will almost certainly be during a time when the Penguins are already starting their inevitable rebuild when Crosby, Malkin, and Kris Letang have retired. In the short-term, however, he perfectly aligns up with their remaining contracts and looks to be a great complement to that core.
If Rakell can score two more goals over these next three games it would bring him to the 30-goal, 60-point mark for the season, a set of numbers that would make him one of the most productive wingers of the Crosby-Malkin era.
Since the 2005-06 season only six different Penguins have reached both in the same season.
Crosby has done it 11 times.
Malkin has done it six times.
Jake Guentzel has done it three times,
James Neal, Phil Kessel and Chris Kunitz each did it one time.
Even if he does not score another goal or record another point over the next three games he and Petr Sykora are the only other players during that time period to reach the 28-goal and 58-point marks in the same season.
Either way, it has been an outstanding season for Rakell in every possible way across the board.
It is without question the one thing Hextall has done right.
Which brings us to the question of how do you get this one move so right, and get every other move so wrong. The broken clock really is right twice a day.