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How front office failures nearly broke the Penguins

The Athletic pulls back the curtain on the Burke/Hextall era and details the failures that led the Penguins franchise to its breaking point.

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2022 NHL Draft - Round One Photo by Bruce Bennett/Getty Images

On Wednesday morning, Rob Rossi and Josh Yohe of The Athletic published a detailed account of the Pittsburgh Penguins franchise under the front office leadership of Brian Burke and Ron Hextall. Much of the focus is placed on the last year of their tenure, beginning with near break up the Penguins ‘Big Three’ and culminating with the Penguins missing the playoffs for the first time in 17 years, leading to their dismissals.

What Rossi and Yohe reveal is the inner workings of one of the darkest, most embarrassing chapters in Penguins history, a history that already includes multiple bankruptcies and a near relocation. We see in detail for the first time, just how incompetent and destructive the Burke/Hextall regime was.

Rossi and Yohe actually begin the piece on a high note, with Kris Letang signing his contract extension last summer that will make him a Penguin for life. From that point on, everything goes down hill, beginning with Evgeni Malkin.

Per The Athletic:

While the negotiations with Letang took longer and were more difficult than expected, Hextall’s discussions with Malkin had turned dark. Only days before the start of free agency last summer, Letang, Crosby and coach Mike Sullivan worked overtime trying to calm Malkin, who was stewing over lowball early contract offers, limited communication with Hextall and veiled public shots from Burke.

“How bad is it?” Letang asked Crosby about the state of Malkin’s emotions and the negotiations.

“Pretty bad,” Crosby said.

We may never know just how insulting the original contract proposed by Hextall was, but it clearly was bad enough to send Malkin into a rage to the point where his two best friends on the team along with the head coach had to get involved to calm him down.

Just A+ work from Hextall and it only gets worse from there involving Malkin. Rossi and Yohe report that the situation between Malkin and the front office became so toxic that he was serious about testing the free agent market almost as a middle finger to Hextall and Burke.

At this point, trust between the two sides was fully eroded, and with it, the possibility the ‘Big Three’ era in Pittsburgh was coming to an end.

Per The Athletic:

“They not think I good player,” Malkin wrote in a text message to Crosby.

“They not want me,” Malkin texted to Letang, who had stepped up efforts to console Malkin after signing his deal.

Thankfully the efforts from Crosby, Letang, and Sullivan got through to Malkin and he signed a new four year contract to remain in Pittsburgh just hours before he was set to become an unrestricted free agent for the first time in his career.

Though the work of his teammates and head coach brought Malkin back to Earth and ultimately back to Pittbsurgh, Hextall was quick to pat himself on the back for a job well done shortly after pen met paper on Malkin’s new deal.

From Rossi and Yohe:

After hanging up with Barry, Hextall bragged to his assistant GM, Chris Pryor, and a handful of staffers, that he “got him on my terms — that’s how you negotiate.”

Striking arrogance from a guy who nearly imploded negotiations with a franchise icon and somehow he might not even be the biggest villain in this entire situation.

Enter former CEO and president David Morehouse, who was tasked with leading the search to find a new general manager after Jim Rutherford suddenly resigned from the position in January 2021.

Due to COVID-19 and the fact that Rutherford resigned in-season, the search for a new general manager was complicated. All interviews had to be conducted over video and there was an urgency to finding a new person to lead the front office.

Morehouse appeared to have a list of potential candidates in mind during his search, but none were interested in taking the job. Rossi and Yohe reveal the reason that was the case.

One again from The Athletic:

Morehouse had scrambled to find GM candidates and was surprised to discover most of his top choices weren’t too interested in running the Penguins for one big reason: Morehouse sought a willingness from the next heads of hockey in Pittsburgh to break up the Big Three.

One of the Penguins longest tenured and most devoted employees was the catalyst behind trying to break up Crosby, Malkin, and Letang.

Rossi and Yohe also reported that Morehouse was one person already in the Penguins organization that Fenway Sports Group heavily leaned on when they took over the franchise in 2022 since they were knew in the hockey world and trying to learn the ropes.

It was also the arrival of FSG that shifted gears away from breaking up the ‘Big Three’ and a directive was given to Hextall to bring Malkin and Letang back on new deals, contradicting the plan laid out by Morehouse who then resigned from the Penguins in April of 2022 before being hired by the Pittsburgh Steelers a few months later.

This is only one part of the incredible exposé done by Rossi and Yohe detailing just how far the Penguins had fallen under Brian Burke and Ron Hextall. In reality, the near disaster of breaking up the Penguins core was just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to explaining just how off the rails the franchise has gone.

Other notable moments touched on in the piece was the front office’s disconnect with head coach Mike Sullivan, the decision to waive Brock McGinn and trade Teddy Blueger during the dad’s trip which upset the locker room, the trade deadline fiasco, and much more.

It’s an incredibly revealing piece and I recommend you take the time to read it if you have access to The Athletic. You can find it here and also linked above in the first paragraph.

Whoever the Penguins end up hiring as their next general manager will certainly have their work cut out for them and they will have to hit the ground running with the draft and free agency around the corner. It’s not an enviable task, but the payoff for returning the Penguins to glory will be worth the effort.