PITTSBURGH — During his time as the NHL’s all-time goaltender, Ron Hextall was the equivalent of an explosive firecracker. In some stints as general manager, Hextall has proven to be a slow-burning candle.
Right now that penguins need their GM to channel his game himself. Their season, teetering after a 2-7-2 stretch, is nearing the abyss.
At this point, the reasons for this funk are well known. But might as well get them out of the way, if only to illustrate the problems Hextall is facing:
- Brian Dumoline and Jeff Petry, the former a franchise star and the latter a veteran in his first season with the Penguins, have not achieved past and/or projected performances. This has turned a perceived strength, the Defense Corps, into a weakness.
- Kris Letang, the Penguins’ clear top defensive lineman, had as miserable a start to the season as any of his many in Pittsburgh. He seems to be trying to do too much, making overly aggressive errors at even strength only to come across as shy and insecure on the power play. The Penguins can’t win consistently unless Letang is a minute-eating, offensive-driving, jack-of-all-trades catalyst. So far he just plays a lot, not well.
- The power play has scored twice in their past 21 opportunities. It’s 6 to 44 (13.7 percent) since the start of the season with four goals in the first 10 chances over the first two games.
- The once reliably dominant topline of Jake Guentzel, Sydney Crosby and Bryan Rost has reverted to an image of his former self, dependent on bargaining and haste. That line was the one on the ice for four maple leaves’ Goals in a 5-2 loss on Wednesday, and his forwards are down 19 combined this season, Rust at an alarming down 9. Granted, plus/minus doesn’t always say much, but in the case of the top line, it sure does seem to mean a lot show what is wrong.
- The bottom six lack an identity. Sure, forward such Josh Archibald and Brock McGinn score goals, but scoring goals isn’t really what the penguins need from these and other third- and fourth-line players. They need territorial control, which they don’t get often enough. They also need some recoil, which they barely get. injuries, in particular Jeff Carter and Teddy Blueger, have not helped. Nor the full disappearance act that has been Kasper Kapanen.
- Tristan Jarry temporarily lost his knee as a starting goalkeeper. He deserves it too. The Penguins’ best hope of fighting for a top spot in the Eastern Conference was for Jarry to play not just at an All-Star Game level, but at an Elite and possibly Vezina Caliber level. He has that kind of ability. He has enough experience to hone his game to such a standard. He didn’t keep his end of the bargain, forced it Casey DeSmith in position to carry the heaviest goalkeeping burden, which is seen as the most important part of this season.
- Finally, irresponsible decisions, whether in the form of rallies by forwards in the neutral zone, deep plucking by defenders in the offensive zone, or the loss of all players who lose their tagged men in the defensive zone, absolutely kills the Penguins.
And there’s more where all this is coming from, but this column isn’t just meant to point out problems. It’s meant to shed some light on Hextall, who recently narrated it the athlete he’s not ready to panic – and just based on what they tell us after games and practice, players equally don’t seem ready to push that button.
Thanksgiving is coming next week. The Penguins would have to get hot — which is unlikely given their brutal, road-heavy schedule begins with a three-game trek beginning Thursday with the Wild — to avoid being outside of the Eastern Conference playoff picture when the Americans gather to turkey and all the fortifications. You may have read somewhere that Thanksgiving usually serves as a demarcation line for potential playoff teams. If not, let’s clear up any confusion.
Teams in a Thanksgiving playoff position make up over 70 percent of the time in the postseason in the salary cap era. The Penguins likely won’t be on those teams until Thanksgiving. In fact, the best they can hope for right now is to be close enough to strike.
They run the risk of being in such a deep hole come Thanksgiving that a pre-Christmas break heat — something like an 8-2-0 stretch starting in December — would be needed for the Penguins to start the new year with any realistic chance of the playoffs.
In fact, at the time of writing this article, they have only played 16 games. No time to panic?
It’s not too early in the season to be late for the Penguins. Something must be done.
That something is a shock. Not an overhaul, just a few steps that could change the dynamic on the ice, in the room and throughout the organization.
Hextall must act. He also has to make a tough call.
The difficult task should be to put Kapans on waivers. He would probably terminate his contract, which hardly anyone can imagine. When it’s clear, send it to AHL subsidiary Wilkes-Barre/Scranton.
He’s not playing lately anyway. When he’s playing, he’s hardly noticeable.
Granted, there’s a chance Kapanen wouldn’t approve of an AHL demotion. So what? Hextall must have confidence that his AHL coaching staff is made up of strong enough leaders to handle a difficult situation. This move would not be about getting a cap relief, although the Penguins would collect some with capans in the AHL. It’s about doing what’s best for the NHL roster, which Kapanen doesn’t currently fit into.
Also, as anyone can tell, Kapanen is very popular with his teammates. Going with him in the AHL waiver would certainly draw players’ attention, and if nothing else, that would be value.
Consider this proposed move with Kapanen as part of a two-pronged approach. The second part would be for Hextall to go out and acquire a player who could really make an impact on these penguins.
You don’t need a star scorer.
They could perhaps use a top-four defender, but the easier route for Hextall is to rely on Dumoulin and Petry to find their better form – at least close to what they’ve shown in previous seasons.
A goalkeeper? nope Jarry just has to find his level and then rise above it.
A role player with an edge, someone who makes it difficult to play against the penguins – that’s the ticket. Probably not a golden ticket, but at least a ticket to break this club out of its rut.
Ideally, the penguins could pluck Tanner Jeannot from the predators. He’s just the sort of edgier winger that would look fantastic on the left side of a third line. He’s 6ft 2in, plays like that, and has just enough attack to contribute a few goals.
Imagine a third line with Jeannot, Carter and Danton Heinen, and a fourth line featuring McGinn, Blueger, and Archibald. Immediately, the bottom six would have an identity, and that identity would not be about scoring goals, but making opponents uncomfortable. There would still be enough scoring opportunities – Carter, Heinen and Blueger – to make those bottom six dangerous. More important, however, would be this group’s ability to tip the ice with the puck without defending it and generally bring a presence that the Penguins have so far lacked.
Hextall has proven to be a patient GM when it comes to mid-season moves. That patience paid off with trades just before the deadline for the likes of Carter (2020-21) and Rickard Rackel (2021-22)
His luxury during those seasons was knowing his Penguins were a playoff team. He could wait for the right move at the right time to strengthen his racquets.
He lacks that luxury this season. The time to strike is now.
Make a tough call to Kapanen. Take a step for Jeannot. Channel that inner firecracker or risk these penguins becoming a candle in the wind.
(Photo by Kasperi Kapanen: Minas Panagiotakis / Getty Images)