Hextall Making Shrewd Moves, but Handcuffed Himself with ‘The Core’

CRANBERRY — Ron Hextall continues to make shrewd moves as the Pittsburgh Penguins GM. He hasn’t missed on a player yet. From Mark Friedman, acquired on the waiver wire for nothing, Jeff Carter, Brock McGinn, and Rickard Rakell, Hextall’s acquisitions have not only filled their role but done so with aplomb.

Hextall has done a near brilliant job with everything except the core with Evgeni Malkin and Kris Letang. Both contracts will likely haunt the Penguins in the end.

Keeping Letang and Malkin now looks like handcuffs from which Hextall could not escape. However, he may have placed the ‘cuffs on himself.

Yes, in earlier opinions, this writer penned the Penguins should sign Malkin and Letang because they deserved it. They would have been the best available players on the free agent market. That was true, but we didn’t realize the lengths the organization had to go to sign them. Letang and Malkin received signing bonuses later in the contract, making them buyout proof. They also received extra years beyond their expected expiration dates.

Because of the signing bonuses in later years and front-loaded deals, those deals are “35+” contracts that stick against the salary cap, even if the player retires.

The only injunction is LTIR, but only if the player qualifies. If the player just walks away because it’s time, the Penguins keep paying. And paying. The salary cap hit remains through the natural end of the contract. Conceivably, the Penguins could have over $12 million in dead money in four years if both Letang and Malkin find the end of their careers.

That didn’t scare Hextall.

“I think all deals are risky. That’s just reality. And we have a marketplace, and we got to make deals within our marketplace,” Hextall said. “So our No. 1 objective was to keep our cap numbers down on those guys so we can surround them with other pieces instead of getting rid of other pieces to be below the cap.”

Fair. That would seem to work for two or three years. But beyond that? The Penguins could be in real trouble if/when Malkin or Letang’s play slips. Modern science is wonderful, but it hasn’t yet cured aging.

Let’s go, science. What’s taking so long?! Some of us are still getting older and don’t like it. But I digress.

There remains a dichotomy to Ron Hextall’s job in Pittsburgh. He’s quietly but effectively adding talent. Signing RHD Jan Rutta was a fantastic signing. It was an A+ type of signing compared to his predecessor dishing out long-term deals with a $4 million AAV to every defenseman at the first opportunity.

Not many in Pittsburgh Penguins land would argue that Jeff Carter wasn’t worth paying the couple of draft picks. Same with Rickard Rakell. Both blended seamlessly.

As flawless as Hextall’s acquisitions have been, he’s been hamstrung by the aging Penguins core. It seems he’s made the best of the situation by slowly changing the cast of characters around the stars of the show. But he can’t touch the stars.

“Personally, I think we should have won (playoff series in 2021 and 2022). Obviously, that’s a matter of opinion, but that gives us the belief that we can still be very competitive and do special things,” Hextall said before adding emphasis to his subsequent sentences. “These guys are special players. These are generational players. These are not ‘really good hockey players.’ These are generational players.”

We agree. The Penguins outplayed their opponents in 2021 (New York Islanders) and 2022 (New York Rangers). In 2021, they let themselves down with shoddy goaltending. In 2022, let’s call it a confluence of events, including flying elbows and ill-timed injuries to goalies. 2022, especially, was just bad luck.

And so, the next two years are the Penguins’ big chance. They finally have a big defenseman (Rutta) who is a bit tougher to move near the net. Even if he’s not overly physical, he’s a good defender.

The Pittsburgh Penguins have a legit top-six. Kris Letang continues to finish in the top-10 of Norris voting. Tristan Jarry is a two-time All-Star.

Who knows, maybe Jason Zucker will be healthy next season.

Hextall has done a solid, bordering on a great job, retooling the team around the core.

However, just as he should receive heaps of praise for his acquisitions, it seems very likely that he will someday receive far more criticism for keeping the core that he was handed, that is impossible to replace, tantalizing good, but will probably stick around after the party is over soaking up valuable resources that prevent the continued competitiveness they created.

Maybe it was an impossible task. Retool AND keep the core. Perhaps Hextall will be good enough to create one more winner – one more blaze of glory before the end.

Irony. The core that brought so much joy to the fanbase and success to the organization could be the thing that eventually ends it. And for his excellent work, Hextall agreed to the albatross, which may eventually cost him.

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