The future of the Pittsburgh Penguins is now in the hands of one of their biggest rivals from the past – and an exec who opined just a couple of months ago that their championship window had closed.
With Tuesday’s hires of Ron Hextall as their new GM and Brian Burke into the unexpected, new role of president of hockey operations, overseeing Hextall, the Penguins signaled what could be a significant shift in their overall approach.
Finding the balance
Hextall’s reputation in Philadelphia (GM) and Los Angeles (assistant GM) was largely focused on the long haul, the big picture. When the Flyers fired their former franchise goalie and Conn Smythe winner, they pointed to wanting to “fix the now,” looking to replacement GM Chuck Fletcher in hopes of “a bias for action and really making some things happen.”
What Hextall built in Philly – a roster that includes talents like Carter Hart, Ivan Provorov and Travis Konecny – is now coming to fruition. You can’t question his eye for talent and commitment to building for the future. That’s something the Penguins, a franchise that’s been in win-now mode since the start of the Sidney Crosby era, largely at the expense of its prospect pool, could really use.
But because this is still the Sidney Crosby era, as well as the Evgeni Malkin and Kris Letang era, it’s fair to wonder how Hextall will balance his approach between the present and future.
“I know I’m kind of looked at as a builder, and the two situations I was in – Philly, I don’t know if it was so much of a rebuild, it was a little bit of a retool for sure, but we kept good players; we made the playoffs two out of four years,” Hextall said. “My philosophy’s always been, we want to be as good as we can be. We have to keep the future in mind, but we’ve got to keep today in mind, too.
“This situation I’m coming into now is certainly different than the one we took over in L.A. or in Philadelphia. I’m not a one-trick pony, and I’ll work with Burkie to become the best team we can become today. If we can get better this year, we’ll try and get better. And if we feel like we’re good enough, then we’re good enough and we’ll go on. There’s a lot of evaluating to go on for us to get a grip on the team ourselves and see it through our own eyes; talk to people, players, and coaches; and make decisions as we go along.”
The new structure
It’s the first time a Penguins GM has reported to a president of hockey operations, instead of directly to the team president. David Morehouse, Penguins president and CEO, addressed the new structure as he discussed Burke’s role in the process, first as a trusted advisor, then as a front-office candidate himself when co-owner Mario Lemieux brought up the idea.
“I believe it falls into our philosophy of getting the best talent we can, whether it be on the ice or off the ice or on the business end,” Morehouse said. “Once I found out Burkie had an interest in coming here, that I could get both Ron Hextall and Brian Burke on our team, it was a no-brainer. I would’ve been a fool not to take [the opportunity]. It’s not so much the structure, it’s the people.”
“I would’ve said no if it was anyone but the Pittsburgh Penguins,” said Burke, who was working for Sportsnet on radio and TV. “I was happy with my life; I liked living in Toronto. But you get to work for the Pittsburgh Penguins, man; this is Cadillac class here. This is not your run-of-the-mill team; this is not a run-of-the-mill ownership. I’m so excited to move to Pittsburgh; it’s one of the great sports towns on the planet. It’s the best sports town in America, for me. I was happy with what I was doing, but this is a chance to work with Hexy, a chance to work for great owners and a chance to work for an organization that’s revered.”
Hextall said he views the pair as a team.
“A general manager’s job nowadays is an enormous undertaking. And to have other people to help you and guide you and work with you – Burkie and I are going to be a team,” he said. “We’re going to work together; we’re going to work hard. Philosophically we’ve talked, we’re on the same page, and he’s going to take things off of my plate and I’m going to take things off of his plate. I think we’re going to have a terrific working relationship.”
About that window…
In his Sportsnet role last November, Burke said he didn’t think the Penguins were good enough to win and, regardless of what they did with their salary cap situation, their championship window had closed. Tuesday, he didn’t walk back or apologize for that comment, but said as long as the team had top-tier talent, he and Hextall would try to be competitive.
“I’m not going to back away from anything I said in my media role,” Burke said. “The way I compare teams is, you take a team, you write it down on paper and put it next to the Tampa Bay Lightning, or put it next to the Washington Capitals. And that’s my job as an analyst on TV is to say, OK, I have to pick which of these teams will finish ahead of the other ones.
“All the teams that have had success have cap issues. There’s a whole bunch of teams with extreme salary cap issues that haven’t won a bloody thing. At least in Pittsburgh, when [former GM] Jimmy Rutherford goes to buy gas, he’s got two rings on. But I also think when you’ve got pieces like we have here, you’ve got to try to win.”
Hextall also spoke about putting the best team possible on the ice right now – while simultaneously being mindful of the organization’s future.
“We like our team right now. Are there a couple areas we’d like to improve? Of course,” he said. “Our job is to analyze as we go along. But I can’t tell you what’s coming our way. I can’t tell you how good our team is going to be the rest of the year and, therefore, to be definitive in a direction. In my interviews [with the Penguins], we talked about all kinds of different scenarios.
“We will keep an eye on the future and try and grab some assets here and there, but we’ve also got to put the best team – you’ve got players, Malkin and Crosby and Letang – I mean, we want to be as good as we can be right now with three of the top players in the world.”
A Keystone clash
Though most Penguins fans know Hextall as the fiery Flyers goalie who once chased a celebrating Rob Brown up the ice with his stick, they might not remember that he spent five or six years growing up in Pittsburgh as his dad, Bryan Hextall, Jr., played for the Penguins. Hextall spoke of those days fondly, including his relationship with Rutherford, who played goal for the Penguins during those years.
“I’ve known Jimmy since I was a child in Pittsburgh there,” Hextall said. “He was very good to me. He gave me his mask, he gave me his skates, he played road hockey with me. He was my biggest idol when I was a child, and I think he did a terrific job.”
Hextall coming on board in Pittsburgh adds another layer to a rivalry that’s already one of the NHL’s best.
“The Penguins-Flyers rivalry is a terrific rivalry, and it’s going to continue,” Hextall said. “I love rivalries; I love hating the other team. It’s what makes sports special. It’s a little different when you’re sitting up top, because you can’t go and, I guess, grab the other manager or somebody from their side and go. But I love rivalries.
“I think it’s one thing in the NHL that maybe we’ve gotten away from a little bit, but I think with some of the playoff series that have happened in the recent past, but also right now playing interdivision – I hope there’s some type of divisional schedule next year where we are [still] playing teams in the division a lot. I think it’s great for sports and, quite frankly, it gets the blood boiling. I love it. Love it.”
Morehouse thinks Penguins fans will quickly learn to love Hextall, too.
“We’re going to harness that competitive fire from the other side of the ice,” he smiled. “Mario and Ron and I had a good talk about that, and Mario is as excited as anyone. I think the fans in Pittsburgh are going to take to Ron. Having him on our side of the ice is going to be much better than having him on the other side.”