Two big moves Ron Hextall could make to get the Penguins out of their rut
PITTSBURGH – During his time as a standout goaltender in the NHL, Ron Hextall was the equivalent of an exploding firecracker. In a couple of stints as general manager, Hextall has shown that he resembles a slow-burning candle.
Right now, the penguins he needs his GM to channel his game. Their season, reeling after a 2-7-2 stretch, is slowly coming to a close.
At this point, the reasons for this funk are well known. But he might as well get them out of the way, if only to illustrate the problems facing Hextall:
- Brian Dumoulin i Jeff Petry, the former a franchise stalwart and the latter a veteran in his first season with the Penguins, have not reached the levels previously and/or projected. This has taken a perceived strength, the defense corps, and turned it into a weakness.
- Kris Letang, the Penguins’ best defenseman, has 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 mistakes at equal strength, only to look timid and unsure when running the power play. The Penguins can’t win consistently unless Letang is a minutes-eating, offense-driving, do-it-all catalyst. So far, just playing a lot, not playing well.
- The power play has two goals in his last 21 chances. He’s just 6-for-44 (13.7%) since starting the season with four goals in his first 10 chances through the first two games.
- The top line, once reliably dominant Jake Guentzel, Sidney Crosby i Bryan Rust it has regressed to a business-of-opportunity facsimile and dependent on the rushes of its former self. This line was on the ice for four of the Maple Leafs’ goals in a 5-2 loss on Wednesday, and their forwards are a combined -19, with Rust at an alarming -9, on the season. Of course, plus/minus doesn’t always say much, but in the case of the top line, it sure seems to show a lot of what’s wrong.
- The bottom six have no identity. Sure, forwards like Josh Archibald i Brock McGinn they’re scoring, but scoring isn’t really what the Penguins need from these and other players on the third and fourth lines. They need territorial control, which they don’t get often enough. They also need some pushback, which they hardly ever get. Injuries, specifically a Jeff Carter i Teddy Blueger, have not helped. Nor the act of complete disappearance that has been Kasperi Kapanen.
- Tristan Jarry he temporarily lost his role as the starting goalkeeper. He deserved it too. The Penguins’ best hope for competing for a top seed in the Eastern Conference was for Jarry to play not only at an All-Star Game level, but at an elite and possibly Vezina-caliber level. He possesses this kind of skill. He has had enough experience to hone his game to such a level. He has not held up his part of the business, forcing Casey DeSmith in the position of carrying the heaviest goaltending load in what will be considered the most important part of this season.
- Finally, irresponsible decisions, whether it’s in the form of turnovers in the neutral zone, pinches too deep by defenders in the offensive zone, or all players losing their marked men in the defensive zone are absolutely killing the Penguins.
And there’s more where all of this comes from, but this column isn’t just about pointing out problems. It is meant to illuminate Hextall, who recently said so The Athletic he’s not ready to panic, and based only on what we’re being told after games and practices, the players seem equally unwilling to push that button.
Thanksgiving is coming up next week. The Penguins should heat up, a possibility given that their brutal road schedule resumes with a three-game road trip that begins with the Wild on Thursday, to avoid being on the outside of the playoff picture. Eastern Conference when Americans gather for turkey and all the fixings. You may have read somewhere that Thanksgiving usually serves as the line of demarcation for potential playoff teams. If not, let’s clear up any confusion.
Teams in a playoff position at Thanksgiving make the postseason more than 70 percent of the time in the salary cap era. The Penguins probably won’t be one of those teams come Thanksgiving. In fact, the best they can hope for at this point is to be close enough to attack.
They are in real danger of being in such a deep hole by Thanksgiving that a pre-Christmas heater, something like an 8-2-0 stretch starting in December, would be necessary for the Penguins to enter the ‘New Year with a realistic style. possibility of reaching the playoffs.
In fact, they have only played 16 games at the time of writing. Isn’t it time to panic?
It’s not too early in the season for the Penguins to be late. Something must be done.
That thing is a jerk. It’s not an overhaul, but a couple of moves that could change the dynamic on the ice, in the room and throughout the organization.
Hextall needs to make a change. He also has to make a tough call.
The tough call should be putting Kapanen on waivers. He’d probably be clear given his contract, which is hard to imagine anyone wanting. When it’s done, send him to AHL affiliate Wilkes-Barre/Scranton.
He hasn’t been playing lately anyway. When he plays, it’s hardly noticeable.
Of course, there’s a chance Kapanen doesn’t like a demotion from the AHL. And what? Hextall has to trust that his AHL coaching staff has strong enough leaders to handle what would be a difficult situation. This move wouldn’t be about getting cap relief, though the Penguins would get some with Kapanen in the AHL. It would be about doing what’s best for the NHL roster, which Kapanen doesn’t fit right now.
Also, as anyone can tell, Kapanen is well-liked by teammates. Going the waiver wire route with him in the AHL would certainly get players’ attention, and that would have value if nothing else.
Think of this suggested move with Kapanen as part of a two-pronged approach. The second part would be Hextall going out and acquiring a player who could really make an impact on these Penguins.
They don’t need a star scorer.
Maybe they could use a top-four defenseman, but the easiest route for Hextall is to have Dumoulin and Petry find their best form, at least close to what they’ve shown in previous seasons.
A goalkeeper? No. Jarry simply has to find his level and then rise to it.
A role player with upside, someone to make the Penguins tough to play against, that’s the ticket. Probably not a golden ticket, but at least a ticket to get out of this club of your routine.
Ideally, the penguins would be able to boot Tanner Jeannot of the Predators. He’s exactly the kind of bolder winger who would look fantastic on the left side of a third line. He’s 6ft 2in, plays like that and has enough offense to contribute some goals.
Imagine a third line with Jeannot, Carter and Danton Heinen, and a fourth line with McGinn, Blueger and Archibald. Immediately, the bottom six would have an identity, and that identity would not be about scoring goals, but about troubling opponents. There would still be enough scoring potential (Carter, Heinen and Blueger) to make those bottom six dangerous. More important, though, would be this group’s ability to tilt the ice with the puck, defend without it and generally provide a presence the Penguins have lacked thus far.
Hextall has proven to be a patient GM when it comes to moves during the season. That patience paid off with trades near the deadline for the likes of Carter (2020-21) and Rickard Rakell (2021-22)
His luxury in those seasons was knowing his Penguins were a playoff team. He could wait for the right move at the right time to strengthen his clubs.
He lacks that luxury this season. The time to strike is now.
Make a tough call to Kapanen. Make a move for Jeannot. Channel that inner firecracker, or risk these penguins becoming a candle in the wind.
(Photo by Kasperi Kapanen: Minas Panagiotakis/Getty Images)
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