Jacob Hebda | Staff Writer
Feb. 11, 2021
After five seasons as general manager of the Penguins, Jim Rutherford abruptly announced his resignation on Jan. 27.
Rutherford, the architect behind the 2016 and 2017 Stanley Cup-winning Penguins, cited personal reasons for his departure. Regardless of his motivation, the choice left Pittsburgh scrambling.
The team has experienced little postseason success in the wake of those back-to-back titles. Mike Sullivan’s team has won only one playoff series in the past three years.
Those lackluster results have carried over into this season, as the Penguins currently sit at 5-5-1. With massive changes possibly looming, Rutherford stepped down a mere seven games into the season.
On Feb. 9, the Penguins officially introduced Ron Hextall as his replacement.
Hextall was the Flyers’ GM from 2014-18. During his tenure in Philadelphia, he built the foundation for what has become a Stanley Cup contender.
The Flyers are currently tied for first place in the NHL’s East Division. Many of the team’s core players, including Travis Sanheim, Ivan Provorov, Travis Konecny, Carter Hart, Nolan Patrick and Joel Farabee, were drafted by Hextall.
Despite collecting a promising pool of talent, Hextall’s Flyers failed to achieve the success that ownership desired. Philadelphia never advanced past the first round under his leadership, and he was fired in 2018.
As an assistant GM with the Los Angeles Kings, Hextall won a Stanley Cup in 2012.
Joining Hextall in Pittsburgh as president of hockey operations will be Brian Burke.
Burke has held management positions with several NHL franchises, including the Canucks, Maple Leafs and Flames. His results have varied, but he won a Stanley Cup in 2007 as GM of the Anaheim Ducks.
With the hires now official, Hextall and Burke will be tasked with addressing some significant quandaries.
A middling campaign thus far puts the Penguins in a precarious position. Pittsburgh remains in the postseason race with its decent record, but further analysis reveals a team in trouble.
The Penguins have won only once in regulation this season and their -8 goal differential ranks last in the division. With a power play percentage of 13.9%, Pittsburgh’s man-advantage ranks 21st in the league.
Sidney Crosby leads the team with an unimpressive nine points. Crosby, a two-time Art Ross Trophy winner, currently ranks 81st in points across the entire NHL.
Evgeni Malkin is currently riding a three-game point streak, but he’s only scored two goals all season.
The supporting cast has, likewise, been underwhelming. Overall, the Penguins rank 18th in goals per game at 2.82.
Defensively, the lone bright spot may be Pierre-Olivier Joseph. The rookie leads team defensemen with five points.
Kris Letang and John Marino, when healthy, have been uneven. Injuries to defensemen Brian Dumoulin and Marcus Pettersson certainly haven’t helped the cause.
Meanwhile, the goaltending tandem of Tristan Jarry and Casey DeSmith has been a downright disaster. Neither goalie holds a save percentage above .900. Jarry, an All-Star last season, possesses a 3.95 goals against average.
Simply put, as things stand now, the Penguins are a far cry from true Stanley Cup contention. The championship window may still be open, but a major overhaul seems necessary to reach that point.
The next few months will be telling for the franchise. A turnaround may spur renewed championship aspirations. Continued issues could portend the exact opposite.
That is the dilemma Hextall and Burke inherit. Based on their respective track records though, there is reason for optimism.
Hextall is a noted team-builder. His draft selections in Philadelphia, and the moves he made to earn them, were impressive.
Burke has a reputation as a bold executive, unafraid to make moves he believes in.
The Penguins seem to hope the two will strike a winning balance — Hextall as a risk-averse roster developer, Burke as a risk-taker willing to make deals that could put the team over the top.
In a shortened 56-game season, time is already running out for the Penguins. If the team fails to reverse its woes, the offseason could mark the beginning of a dramatic makeover.
Until that time comes, the jury on Hextall and Burke will remain out.
These hires are not quite a shot in the dark, but rather — if you will — a shot in the dusk. The aim behind these moves is visible but still unclear. Whether they prove effective is anyone’s guess.
In the meantime, I recommend heeding the advice of a beloved Penguin playoff slogan —“Buckle up, baby!”