Back to Long Island the Pittsburgh Penguins go, concluding the second of two comparatively-lengthy breaks between games against the New York Islanders. Despite the first career goal from Pierre Olivier-Joseph, the first even-strength goal of the season for Evgeni Malkin, and Jake Guentzel’s team-leading fourth goal of the season, the Penguins nevertheless gave away the lead and the game in the last ~12 minutes of the third period and were dealt a 4-3 loss by the Islanders on Saturday. The loss set the Penguins back to being tied for second-worst in the East Division in points percentage with the team approaching the one-quarter mark of the scheduled season.
In the meantime, the team executives tidied up their front office mess by hiring former general manager Jim Rutherford’s replacements: Ron Hextall as the new GM and Brian Burke as the president of hockey operations. It’s a splashy move for Penguins chief executive officer David Morehouse, as he’s betting on Hextall’s experience in turning teams around recently to help lead Pittsburgh in what stands to be a period of transition. He was instrumental in the Los Angeles Kings winning the Stanley Cup in 2012 and he left the Philadelphia Flyers in 2018 with a pretty solid foundation which eventually led to them this season being tied with the Boston Bruins for the best record in the East Division.
Burke, on the other hand, was most recently sharing his thoughts on SportsNet over on Canadian TV, which makes sense since I always considered him to bloviate. In Burke’s defense, he too has Cup experience, helping to lead the Anaheim Ducks to the second post-pandemic championship in 2007, so I guess there’s reason to talk big. For Burke, the role of president of hockey operations will be middleman between Hextall and co-owners Ron Burkle and Mario Lemieux. Burke was GM of the Toronto Maple Leafs when in 2009 they acquired Phil Kessel from the Boston Bruins for two first-round picks and a second-rounder as well.
Jokingly, I like to think that Hextall is a secret agent sent by the Philadelphia Flyers to make sure the Penguins are not a threat to the Flyers anytime in the near future, but the truth of the matter is that it is the responsibility of the former GM Rutherford that the Penguins have spent the last few seasons sinking behind the arch-rival Flyers in the standings. Rutherford ended up overmanaging the assets on the roster, from players to prospects to draft picks to salary, and what’s left for Hextall to work with can’t get much worse. Ignoring the injuries that have piled up for the Penguins already in this season’s infancy, many of the more recent outside acquisitions in the roster are underperforming their contracts (see: Brandon Tanev, Mike Matheson) or in some cases are being paid to not be on the team (see: Nick Bjugstad, Jack Johnson).
Hextall will have some difficult decisions to make come the 2021-22 offseason. Malkin and Kris Letang have expiring contacts, as do Bryan Rust, Chad Ruhwedel, Juuso Riikola, and Casey DeSmith, as well as RFAs Kasperi Kapanen, Jared McCann and Joseph. Nearly $35 million in cap space to build a team that can replace (or somehow improve upon) the productivity of those potential departures. I’m talking about all this happening in two offseasons, and without the team’s first, third, fourth, or sixth-round draft choices this coming offseason. Hextall’s tendency, at least with the Flyers, was to let the draft picks do the talking, but he’s going to have to wait a few years for that to work out. Burke meanwhile may be the one pushing for the bigger, cap-shedding moves that, at least in terms of productivity, the Penguins can’t really afford right now. It’s an interesting dichotomy that at least will be a change of pace from the seemingly-unilateral management under Rutherford.
Presumably, finally, Zach Aston-Reese will return to the lineup tonight to bring the third line back to respectability. The trio of Aston-Reese, Tanev, and Teddy Blueger have in the past wreaked havoc on their opponents’ more productive lines in the past, and with Tanev’s aggression, Aston-Reese’s acuity, and Blueger’s scoring ability, this line really needs to be productive again at both ends of the ice to give Mike Sullivan another option to rely on and give the Crosby and Malkin lines rest. Also practicing again is Marcus Pettersson, who I would really hate to see traded away when the need is for more productive defense. By the way, here’s what I would like a healthy Penguins defense to look like:
Naturally this is a pipe dream: Matheson is paid big bucks, in fact more than anyone besides Letang, so despite playing himself to a lower rating in my mind, he figures to rate ahead of Riikola and Ruhwedel which is too bad considering their performance thus far this season. Matheson needs to improve his play to justify both his minutes and his pay, just the same as anyone else on the roster, but for now, because of the injuries he will get his ice time regardless of how poorly he’s played for the team.
Otherwise, tonight the goal for the entire team is the same as any other night: find a way to prevent their opponents from scoring. A tall task for a depleted defense that has allowed the eighth-most goals against with the League’s worst save percentage, and has yet to prevent two or fewer goals more than once this season. Obviously they can’t yet score at will, and until they can they have to find a way to play better in their own end, because neither Casey DeSmith nor Tristan Jarry can be relied upon to keep the door shut all game long.
(I’m having problems getting to the comments on my laptop, so here’s a direct link to it for all of our sakes: https://disqus.com/home/discussion/pens-hockey-1/gameday_12_reboot/)