Penguins GM Hextall Has Team Poised for Playoff Run

When Ron Hextall was named General Manager of the Pittsburgh Penguins, it caught some people by surprise. Questions arose about if he was the perfect fit. Would he and President of Hockey Operations Brian Burke work well together? Would they make too many changes? Would they make any? With the regular season over for the Penguins, I can look back now and say Hextall handled the roster perfectly and has helped set up the team for success this postseason.

When Hextall was hired as GM back in February, rumblings immediately started from some of the insiders in hockey about the direction of the team. Everything from Kris Letang has almost been traded a bunch of times over the past few months to Sidney Crosby is getting dealt to the Colorado Avalanche is starting to make a ton of sense. The team was struggling to score goals and was sitting with a 5-5-1 record, with a goal differential of minus-8. Instead of coming in hot to his new job and making a statement, Hextall had a game plan that involved a couple of steps.

First Things First, Hextall Had to Evaluate the Team Up Close and Personal

The freshly minted GM wanted to get up close and personal with his new roster and get to know everyone and see for himself how they played together. He wanted to talk to some of the players to get a pulse check on the team and he met with all the coaches to hear their perspectives of what’s gone wrong so far in the first 11 games. Hextall’s management style this season involved a ton of listening early on to gather as much information as possible so he could make executive decisions later on in the season. Roughly two weeks into his job, he identified an area of concern and addressed it, claiming Mark Friedman off waivers to add some more defensive depth.

Mark Friedman Philadelphia Flyers
Mark Friedman was Ron Hextall’s first addition to the Penguins (Amy Irvin / The Hockey Writers)

Well, wouldn’t you know, Hextall adds a player from the Philadelphia Flyers. It certainly seemed fitting at the time and has worked out pretty well. Friedman’s a right-handed shot defenseman, who has the ability to play both sides. While he’s only appeared in five games for the Penguins this season, he’s performed well and provided a bit of a security blanket as the team has been hammered all season with injuries. Their top-six defensive group is set when everyone’s healthy, which doesn’t include Friedman, however, given Hextall’s prior knowledge of the player and what he’s shown over his five games in Pittsburgh, it was a reasonable under the radar type of move, and the perfect first move for the new general manager.

One Small Transaction Led to a Huge Addition Weeks Later

Hextall continued to evaluate the team as late February and March rolled on, watching a streaky hockey club that had the ability to produce results despite getting chomped on by the injury bug. And sure enough, the night of April 11, one day before the trade deadline, Hextall made his key transaction, acquiring veteran forward Jeff Carter from the Los Angeles Kings.

Jeff Carter Pittsburgh Penguins
Jeff Carter has fit in perfectly with the Penguins (Photo by Joe Sargent/NHLI via Getty Images)

The trade raised some questions about if Carter still had enough left in the tank. Or would he be able to keep up to the fast Penguins roster? It’s been obvious since day one in Pittsburgh, Carter was the perfect addition for the Penguins, and Hextall deserves a ton of credit for pulling the trigger on the deal. The 36-year-old played 40 games for the Kings this season, scoring eight goals. He finished up his regular season with the Penguins, appearing in 14 games, scoring nine goals.

Carter’s shown the ability to be the third center icemen the Penguins needed, win 50% of his faceoffs and obviously find his scoring touch that’s seen him produce multiple 30-goal seasons. His leadership skills are off the charts, his personality fits with the group, and most of all, he’s a proven winner with a championship pedigree. Hextall not only made a great trade by acquiring Carter from the Kings, but he also made the perfect trade.

Sometimes Less Is More When it Comes to Making Moves

The biggest thing to take away from Hextall’s first season with the Penguins is the fact he was able to address a need for the team without compromising any assets off the current roster or messing with the chemistry of the team. If you listen to press conferences throughout the season, the Penguins are notorious for mentioning how great of a group they have in the room and how players love to battle for one another on a nightly basis. The team showed a hell of a lot of preservice and a drive to succeed through adversity, and captain Sidney Crosby spoke to this at a presser on Wednesday:

Make no mistake about it, the Penguin players were the ones responsible for fighting through this season of ups and downs and finding ways to win on a nightly basis. The likes of Crosby, Bryan Rust, and Jake Guentzel helped lead the way as the best line in hockey, and Letang was an absolute staple on the blueline that helped carry the group to a fine season. However, the team has Hextall to thank. He came into Pittsburgh at the perfect pace. He showed the ability to be patient, the ability to listen and learn, and the guts to make one major trade that was a calculated risk which has paid off tremendously. This team is geared up for a long playoff run, and Hextall’s name should be near the top of the list of people to thank.