Hextall has a challenge as Penguins GM

Photo/Mark Zimmaro

Can you believe it? Ron Hextall and Mario Lemieux are now work buddies.

It’s a partnership that’s tough to imagine, as Hextall was once responsible for sending Lemieux to the dentist’s chair after a follow through, back when the two were divisional rivals. Lemieux, who now owns the Penguins, often returned the favor on the scoresheet, scoring 19 regular season goals on Hextall in addition to eight more in the playoffs. 

Apparently, bygones are bygones.

“I actually wondered if it was going to be a bit of a roadblock there with them,” Hextall told Jeff Marek on Hockey Central last week. “It certainly wasn’t going to be for me. Mario (Lemieux) was actually pretty quick to remind me that I knocked four of his teeth out way back in the day.”

Aside from that errant stick-swing, Lemieux seemed to have Hextall’s number. It turns out, he still does.

After Jim Rutherford suddenly resigned, Hextall received a call to interview and eventually win the Penguins’ recently vacated general manager position, which sent shockwaves to local Flyers fans who might feel betrayed that their franchise’s winningest goaltender now controls the fate of the hated cross-state rivals.

Even Hextall was surprised.

“I must admit hearing ‘Ron Hextall, General Manager of the Pittsburgh Penguins’ sounds a little different,” Hextall said on Hockey Central. 

His managing approach might be different, too. 

You can certainly draw a few parallels. When Hextall was handed the reins in Philadelphia in 2014, the Flyers were fresh off a playoff appearance, albeit a quick exit at the hands of the New York Rangers. The previous year, the free-spending Flyers had signed free agents Mark Streit and Vincent Lecavalier to long-term deals and former GM Paul Holmgren had just locked up Claude Giroux to an eight-year extension.

The Flyers were tight against the salary cap ceiling and were bare in the prospects category, just like the Penguins are now. Hextall’s pitch to Flyers ownership and Philly fans back then was one of patience. But there was one thing the Flyers had then that the Penguins lack now: time.

Giroux was 26. The rest of the core was young, too, as Jake Voracek (24), Wayne Simmonds (25), Brayden Schenn (22) and Sean Couturier (21) were all just sniffing their primes. Hextall probably envisioned those players surrounding a young crop of homegrown talent, which would eventually include Carter Hart, Ivan Provorov, Travis Konecny and Travis Sanheim. The Flyers attempted to wait it out, stock the farm system, and nurture their future stars while their veterans were still in a producing stage of their careers.

It hasn’t worked to the tune of a Stanley Cup or a long playoff run so far, but Hextall wasn’t far off the trail, at least from a planning standpoint.

The Penguins probably won’t be able to follow that blueprint. Sidney Crosby is 33. Evgeni Malkin is 34, and Kris Letang will turn 34 in April. The Penguins don’t have too many more kicks at the can with three world-class players approaching their late 30s. The patient approach might not work but it will be interesting to see if Hextall has a choice. 

Moving any of the big three would be shocking, as Crosby seems like a lifelong Penguin the way Lemieux was and is signed for another four years. Malkin and Letang each have one year remaining on their contracts following this season. All three players have some form of trade protection, although Letang’s is limited (can list 18 teams to be traded to, according to Cap Friendly). Crosby and Malkin cannot be moved without consent. Two other players, Jason Zucker and Brandon Tanev, also have modified no-trade clauses, which won’t make things easy for Hextall to move pieces around.

For years, the strategy for the Penguins has been constant win-now mode as long as Crosby and Malkin are healthy. And after the weekend, Pittsburgh was straddling the playoff wall in a three-way tie for third place in the East Division. 

They could go for it again, but the Pens don’t have much to offer in order to add at the deadline, especially after already trading away their first-, third- and fourth-round picks for 2021.

“There’s a lot of decisions to make and the one thing I know about the Penguins organization is they are very well-run, so we’re not going to go in there and blow things up,” Hextall said on Hockey Central. “I know first-hand that I will learn things going in there, the way they do things were better than some of the ways I do things. And in other areas, you’re going to tweak and make them more conducive to the way you can work efficiently.”

Hextall will have to quickly evaluate his new team and come up with a plan quickly, while adding another wrinkle to the Flyers-Penguins rivalry.

Which every way he goes, we know Hextall will come out swinging.