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Has Penguins GM Ron Hextall Created an Unfixable Mess?

The Pittsburgh Penguins are in a rut and there may not be an easy way out of it.

As it stands, the Pittsburgh Penguins are 4-6-2 and are now losers of seven straight hockey games. At the same point last year, the Penguins were 5-3-4.

At that time, they were seen as a struggling team for losing five out of seven games. Things are a bit worse this season.

But what would a Penguins season be without an early season rut?

I would like to believe that the Penguins mess has an easy fix. The sad thing is, the stars that need to perform are performing. The bottom six and the goaltending have been a bit underwhelming to this point. There’s been no help for the top guys.

A quick look into the Penguins bottom six and there’s actually some names that make the team look relatively deep there: Kasperi Kapanen, Jeff Carter, Danton Heinen, and Brock McGinn. All four of those guys have been productive players in the NHL over their careers and make the Penguins bottom half look good on paper.

The actual production, however, has been few and far between.

Kapanen’s re-signing in the offseason came as a bit of a head scratcher. He is set to make $3.2 million a year for this season and next. Nothing he’d done previously had warranted such a deal.

Carter was given an extension during last season that sees upwards of $3 million of cap space being taken up. He’ll be 38-years old on New Year’s Day with another season after this one on the Penguins cap.

Heinen has been the best of the group so far but even he’s seen a fall off in the last handful of games. The Penguins brought him back for a bargain at $1 million so his production should outweigh the contract and I suspect he could get back on track.

McGinn was the biggest acquisition in free agency for the Pens prior to last season in Ron Hextall’s first crack at free agency as the Penguins’ general manager. He gave McGinn, someone who was never going to play outside of the top six, a four year deal. Long-term deals for fourth line players usually don’t pan out all that well.

And to make matters worse, the Penguins allowed both Jared McCann and Brandon Tanev to head to Seattle in their inaugural year. McGinn was seen as the “replacement” for Tanev.

Yikes.

Despite Heinen’s low cap number, I’ll include him in this discussion since I brought up capable NHL players in the bottom-six, these four players account for $10.075 million to the salary cap. While that doesn’t seem like an incredibly high number, the Penguins don’t have a lot of room to miss on bottom-six players when their salary cap is top heavy. So far this season, it looks as if they’re missing pretty badly.

Hextall also decided to extend goaltender Casey DeSmith to be the backup for the next two seasons. While he hasn’t been awful in Pittsburgh, health has been a problem for him at important times and he’s making $1.8 million.

There’s a handful of young goalies in the NHL who make the league minimum to be backups. $1.8 million is a lot to spend on a backup goalie when the Penguins feel they have their franchise guy in Tristan Jarry. That could’ve been spread out elsewhere.

Of course, the Penguins have guys in the minors waiting on an NHL chance that are young and inexpensive. Drew O’Connor, Sam Poulin, and Drake Caggiula have seen some time here this season filling in for injured players. Alex Nylander, Valtteri Puustinnen, and Filip Hallander are also cheap options that could play.

The problem lies in the fact that they have no cap space and the players they’d have to sit would cost too much to be sitting in the press box.

All of this goes without mentioning dumping John Marino, Mike Matheson, and Evan Rodrigues, retaining Brian Dumoulin and acquiring older players to fill the spots of the players that were mentioned above.

Hextall may have created a mess that has no real solutions inside the current organization. He’s got very little cap space to work with to make an in-season trade for anyone of impact.

Hopefully the current passengers start to step up and help driving the ship because this could be the first year in which the Penguins don’t make the playoffs in almost two decades.

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