The Pittsburgh Penguins didn't break any new ground with their latest management hires, but you can't say they were boring, either. Ron Hextall is the new GM in Pittsburgh, while Brian Burke takes over as president of hockey operations.
Hextall had been advising the Los Angeles Kings, though he is better known from his days as GM of Pittsburgh's archrival, the Philadelphia Flyers. During his tenure with the Flyers, Hextall built up a fantastic pipeline that included the likes of Carter Hart, Travis Konecny, Joel Farabee and Ivan Provorov. He was patient with his prospects' development path and the organization is still enjoying the fruits of his labor. Having said that, Hextall doesn't want to be pigeon-holed as an executive.
"I'm not a one-trick pony," he said. "I know I'm looked at as a builder. We want to be as good as can be, but we have to keep the future in mind."
Hextall said he likes what he sees in Pittsburgh already, while also naturally acknowledging that there will likely be some tweaks along the way. The main criticism of Hextall when he was on his way out in Philadelphia was that he could be too conservative and sometimes stubborn when it came to personnel decisions. In Pittsburgh, he'll have a new peer to bounce ideas off and get feedback from and there is no question Burke will give it to him straight.
Hextall noted that the modern NHL GM job is massive and having Burke to work with will be a boon. As the new president of hockey operations, Burke can take things off of Hextall's plate and vice-versa.
While Burke has an extensive resume as an NHL GM and executive, he's also coming straight from a media job at Hockey Night in Canada, where he became a must-watch during last year's playoff bubble. Typically, Hextall hasn't been one to seek out the media spotlight and Burke's ability to fill a reporter's notebook with quotes will certainly allow the GM to concentrate on other aspects of the job.
So why did Burke leave his cushy commentator job? Pittsburgh's CEO was one major reason.
"I would have said no to anyone but David Morehouse and the Pittsburgh Penguins," Burke said. "This is Cadillac class."
Another big factor was Penguins captain Sidney Crosby. When Burke was GM of the Anaheim Ducks, he missed out on the Crosby lottery by one pick in 2005, instead grabbing Bobby Ryan at No. 2. Now, Burke is finally on the same team as Crosby.
"I've had guys who are in the Hall of Fame and Sid is the best I've ever had," Burke said. "When you have pieces like we have, you've gotta try to win."
And that's really the crux of what is facing Pittsburgh right now. Crosby and Evgeni Malkin are still high-end players, but the Penguins have been sliding further away from another Stanley Cup title for several years now. Clearly the organization was fine with constantly mortgaging the future, because they didn't want Jim Rutherford to leave as GM and he was one of the most aggressive horse traders in the NHL.
But a cliff is rapidly approaching in Pittsburgh and now the challenge falls upon Hextall and Burke. The Penguins pipeline is incredibly thin and the team has already traded away its 2021 first-round pick. Heck, they only have one selection (a second-rounder) in the first four rounds right now. Two of the team's best young players, Pierre-Olivier Joseph and John Marino, were drafted by other teams and acquired later and while the Pens have had some luck with college free agents such as Zach Aston-Reese and Drew O'Connor recently, it's not a sustainable formula.
The fact is, this franchise needs to absolutely stack draft selections and the sooner they do so, the better.
Of course, the needle that needs to be threaded involves Crosby and Malkin. It doesn't sound like Pittsburgh is interested in a rebuild and with those two in the lineup, the team is always at least in the mix for success, so Hextall's job will be to try for short-term gains while somehow planning for the future.
In that sense, perhaps Hextall's conservative nature will work in his favor. Instead of making a flurry of moves like Rutherford did, Hextall can gently augment the group while either grabbing an extra draft pick or two, or at least not trading anymore away.
The Penguins could have been radical with Rutherford's replacement: Patrik Allvin, briefly promoted to interim GM, is now back as assistant GM, but it would have been interesting to see a European mind take the helm in Pittsburgh. There are certainly a slew of others from diverse backgrounds who would have been intriguing, but it is clear that the Penguins have a game plan here. They believe the Crosby/Malkin era still has some fight left in it and they're going to try to win now by going the safe route.
Whether or not it works, it's at least going to be entertaining.