The Ron Hextall era technically came to an end in Pittsburgh back on April 14, when the former GM, President of Hockey Operations Brian Burke and Assistant GM Chris Pryor were shown the door after the Penguins missed the playoffs, ending the longest active postseason streak in major North American sports at 17 years.
One could argue, though, that the Hextall era finally came to a close Aug. 6, when Kyle Dubas, now the team’s one-man GM and president of hockey ops, cleaned up a few of Hextall’s most significant messes and acquired the superstar he coveted in one fell swoop.
In acquiring defenseman Erik Karlsson, 33, from the San Jose Sharks, the Penguins land an all-time great. The defending Norris Trophy winner has claimed that honor three times – only four defensemen have won more, and their names are Bobby Orr, Nick Lidstrom, Doug Harvey and Ray Bourque. Since he came into the league in 2009-10, Karlsson leads all defensemen in points and assists, and trails only Brent Burns in goals. He’s a gifted driver of offense and should fit right in with the way the Penguins like to play.
Erik Karlsson (traded to Pittsburgh for an as-yet unknown return) is an exceptionally strong driver of offence, a wizard at making sure that offence becomes goals; gives a little of it back defensively. pic.twitter.com/54HGae5j8n
— Micah Blake McCurdy (@IneffectiveMath) August 6, 2023
“It was a fairly lengthy process with San Jose that goes back to my previous place of employment,” Dubas said. “The reason we wanted to bring Erik in was, one of the things that I and Sully [head coach Mike Sullivan] felt was that we need to continually improve our ability to move the puck from our own zone. Erik is one of the elite players in that regard in the NHL. Very competitive, very motivated person, and adding someone like that to the group as we attempt to give it every chance to win but also keep our eye toward the future – happy to not to include any of our [top] prospects, Owen Pickering, Brayden Yager – as well.”
The Penguins also add a nice depth piece in forward Rem Pitlick, 26, via Montreal, the third team brought into the deal, as well as a former second-round pick in Dillon Hamaliuk, 22, from San Jose and the Sharks’ 2026 third-round draft pick. San Jose retains $1.5M of Karlsson’s $11.5M salary, which runs through 2026-27.
The real magic, though, lies in the pieces Dubas was able to move out in the deal. Hextall and Burke bought into a narrative in which the Penguins were too easily pushed around and needed to become a heavier, more physical team. Enter veteran D Jeff Petry, now 35 ($6.25M through 2024-25), and Jan Rutta, 33 ($2.75M through 2024-25). Both underwhelmed with the Penguins, and both are now gone, with Petry heading back to Montreal and Rutta to San Jose. The Penguins retain 25% of Petry’s salary.
Hextall’s most baffling move, the addition of Mikael Granlund at last season’s trade deadline, still making $5M for the next two seasons on the downside of his career, was undone as the forward heads to San Jose in the deal. No need for a buyout. No further cap ramifications to the Penguins.
Pittsburgh also sends backup Casey DeSmith to Montreal in the deal – not surprising as they’ve acquired backup Alex Nedeljkovic as well as Magnus Hellberg this summer, along with extending starter Tristan Jarry – and parts ways with prospect Nathan Legare, 22, whose value has declined.
Dubas had to sacrifice a couple of high futures (a top-10 protected, 2024 first-rounder to San Jose, a 2025 second to Montreal) to make the deal but, in the end, the Penguins managed to clear a net $3.1375M in cap space, become slightly younger, and retain important roster players like Marcus Pettersson and P.O Joseph. Most importantly, in adding a player of Karlsson’s caliber, they continued to show that they’re focused on better positioning themselves for all that really matters – giving Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin and Kris Letang a shot at one more postseason run.
“I think anytime when there’s a player like that that comes available, especially with the core group and how special that core group of people is in the room – both the coaching staff and the players and the group that surrounds the team – I think it’s incumbent on me to reach out and see if there’s a fit there for us,” Dubas said of Karlsson back on July 1, when news of the Penguins’ interest first surfaced.
The Penguins are still right up at the salary cap – $79,342 over, according to CapFriendly – so Dubas likely has more work to do. He’d already significantly altered Pittsburgh’s makeup since arriving on June 1, allowing free agents like Jason Zucker and Brian Dumoulin to walk and bringing in forwards Reilly Smith, Matt Nieto, Noel Acciari, Lars Eller and Vinnie Hinostroza and defenseman Ryan Graves.
The team also has a Jake Guentzel-sized hole to plug from its internal depth through the first five games or so, as the star left wing had a surprising ankle surgery Aug. 2 and will be re-evaluated in 12 weeks. Dubas said Monday that Guentzel ended the year with an injury that the team was continuing to monitor throughout the summer.
“Obviously he continued to skate and train on it. We didn’t want it to linger into the year, so when it wasn’t healing the way that it was supposed to…he was given a very specific methodology to go through, including trying it in some game action in [Minnesota summer hockey league] Da Beauty League. And it just wasn’t comfortable enough for him as he was getting up to the prescribed levels, so at that point it was decided that we would have the surgical solution performed. It’s in Jake’s best interest and the team’s best interest to have Jake at 100%.”
Six weeks out from training camp, Dubas said the reshaping of the roster is likely complete.
“I don’t expect anything more major, but you can never make any promises,” Dubas said. “I think we always want to try to improve the team, but I would say I think this will be the group. With Granlund and two defensemen going out, [we feel that] of the remaining free agents or even professional tryouts, this could be a great spot for them to come in. If there’s anything, it will be more in that vein.”