As expected, July has been a very busy month for the Pittsburgh Penguins, as they managed to sign Evgeni Malkin, Kris Letang, Bryan Rust and Rickard Rakell to new contracts before free agency started on July 13. The team also used their first-round draft pick to select defenseman Owen Pickering on July 7.
General manager (GM) Ron Hextall has been in the drivers’ seat for about 18 months and has introduced a new way of doing business in Pittsburgh. Before him, Jim Rutherford held the title of GM and was always very outspoken about the team’s business. However, Hextall has created a new culture within the organization of keeping things quiet, and it seems to be working out well for him.
Hextall’s Business Career
Hextall got his start in the business world as a scout for the Philadelphia Flyers from 1999-2006. He then joined the Los Angeles Kings as assistant GM from 2006-2013 and helped the team win their first Stanley Cup in 2012. He returned to the Flyers as GM from 2014-2018.
Hextall took over as GM of the Penguins on February 9, 2021, and has since had to weather a few storms. Since he took the reins, the team has gone through an ownership change, a multitude of injuries at all the wrong times and near disaster when it came to getting contracts done before free agency. It seems he endured all of this without breaking a sweat all while keeping the media in complete darkness.
Hextall’s Unique Strategies
The Penguins entered the offseason sooner than they wanted to after a devastating Game 7 overtime loss to the New York Rangers in the first round of the playoffs. It was extremely obvious that the team had a lot of offseason work to do, and would no doubt get started immediately. If you had asked anyone in Pittsburgh what the priority for the offseason should be, they would have said bringing back Malkin and Letang.
Hextall clearly did not see it that way; with a move that few saw coming, the Penguins re-signed Bryan Rust to a six-year contract at $5.125 million average annual value (AAV) in late May. After that deal was completed, fans and media alike were sure that he would get new contracts done for Malkin and Letang as soon as possible. However, the month of June went by and all stayed quiet in Pittsburgh.
When the calendar flipped to July and no new contracts had been signed, the nerves started setting in. Finally on July 7, six days before the start of free agency, the news broke that Letang had been re-signed to a six-year deal for $36.6 million. With him signed, there was no doubt that Malkin would soon follow.
On Tuesday, July 12, one day before free agency, a new contract was signed in Pittsburgh, but it was not the one fans expected. The Penguins signed Rickard Rakell to a six-year contract with a $5 million AAV. After this news was released, it seemed unlikely Malkin would return to Pittsburgh. Through all of this, Hextall maintained his calm, patient persona and late Tuesday night reminded all of us why he is one of the better GMs in the NHL, as Malkin was re-signed to a four-year contract that carried with it a $6.1 million AAV.
In the end, Hextall managed to get contracts done for Malkin, Letang, Rust and Rakell for less money per year than they had been making the year before. While most would have rushed into deals with Malkin and Letang and not gotten the best bang for their buck, he was able to play the long game. Rakell brought something special to the ice when he joined the Penguins at the end of last season, which Hextall recognized and was determined to keep in Pittsburgh.
Hextall also made a couple of big trades last weekend with the Montreal Canadiens and New Jersey Devils. He acquired veteran defenseman Jeff Petry and forward Ryan Poehling from Montreal in exchange for defenseman Mike Matheson. Hextall recognized that Poehling, who stands at 6-foot-2 and weighs in at 207 pounds, would bring some much-needed size and physicality to the bottom six. John Marino was also traded away to the New Jersey Devils for defenseman Ty Smith.
Hextall managed to keep the core together heading into next season, but he also added some new blood into the lineup. He may have a reputation for staying quiet and remaining calm, but when it comes time to make the hard decisions he is the right man for the job.