Burke, Hextall face delicate balancing act with Penguins

Hockey Night In Canada’s Elliotte Friedman and David Amber react to the news of Brian Burke’s departure from Sportsnet to join the Penguins. How will Burke’s arrival in Pittsburgh affect the roster moving forward?

Well, this should be interesting.

The Pittsburgh Penguins hired their next general manager Tuesday, bringing in former rival Ron Hextall for the job. On top of that, the team also created a new position, President of Hockey Operations, and hired former NHL GM and Sportsnet analyst Brian Burke to fill that role.

Now we start to wonder what this all means for the team, two weeks after former GM Jim Rutherford stepped down as GM.

"Nothing's changed. We're the Pittsburgh Penguins, and we're here to win," CEO David Morehouse said at the top of the press conference.

The overarching question around the Penguins these days is just how much this core has left in the tank. They are only four years removed from their last Stanley Cup championship, but haven't won a game in an official playoff series in the past two years. Sidney Crosby and Kris Letang are 33, Evgeni Malkin is 34. The latter two have one more season past this remaining on their contracts and a decision will have to be made on whether to re-sign them and ensure they end their careers as Penguins, or possibly move in another direction.

Everything that happens under this new leadership hinges on this simple query: Is the Penguins' window to win the Stanley Cup still open?

"We like our team right now. We both like our team," Hextall said. "Is there a couple areas where we'd like to improve? Of course."

But even that answer came with a bit of a "wait and see" caveat.

"I can't tell you what's coming our way," Hextall continued. "I can't tell you how good our team is going to be the rest of the year and, therefore, to be definitive in a direction. Obviously we have different ideas [on direction] and in my interviews we talked about all kinds of different scenarios.

"We will keep an eye on the future and try and grab some assets here and there...but we want to be as good as we can be right now with three of the best players in the world."

With a 5-5-1 record, the Penguins are currently above only the NY Rangers for points percentage in the East Division, and tied with Buffalo. They've lost two in a row and have the worst goal differential in the division (minus-8), which also ranks seventh-worst in the entire league. The goaltending has been subpar, depth is a concern and whenever a defenceman shows up in trade rumours, the Penguins are always listed among the candidates.

That does not sound like a top-end team. It seems there is more than one move to make for the Penguins to be a contender once again, but whenever you have Malkin and Crosby, there's a certain built-in expectation that you should be competitive on some level and not fold your cards.

At least for this year, the new voices in charge indicated that would continue to be Plan A.

"We're looking to make the Pittsburgh Penguins the best team we can this year. We'll see where it goes, we'll see how good we are, we'll see how our players respond and we'll address things as we go along," Hextall said. "You always have to look at the future, but you have to look at the present and the focus right now is on making the Pittsburgh Penguins the best we can right now until the end of the year."

This gets interesting for two reasons.

One, Hextall has a bit of a reputation as a builder. As an assistant GM in Los Angeles, he worked under Dean Lombardi who slowly developed that organization, mostly through the draft, into a Cup champion. As GM in Philadelphia, Hextall accumulated draft picks and built out a foundation there that is paying off right now. Travis Konecny, Ivan Provorov, Travis Sanheim, Carter Hart, Nolan Patrick and Joel Farabee are some of the higher profile draft picks made by the Flyers under Hextall's watch.

You wouldn't say those Flyers were in a full rebuild since they made the playoffs in two of his four seasons and didn't sell off all their NHL talent for futures. It was more of a re-tool on the fly and was supposed to be a deliberate build-up by drafting and developing talent. Building out an organization.

When Hextall was let go by the Flyers, it was because they wanted to accelerate things and he didn't see it that way.

In Pittsburgh, you have a team with a stated desire to "win now" which was the message delivered the day Rutherford left and again on Tuesday. They do not have their own first-round pick in 2021 (or picks in Rounds 3, 4 and 6) and the prospect pipeline is thin. In the past six drafts, the Penguins have made one selection in the first round -- that was the cost of keeping the contender alive.

So, how you add to this team to put it back on track this season does not have an obvious answer.

The other reason this will get interesting is, of course, the dynamic of having Burke in the fold. He's been known to accelerate rebuilds, be aggressive on the trade front, and build his teams in a certain truculent fashion.

He's also recently been on record as saying he thought Pittsburgh's window to win had closed.

"There's a dichotomy in the hockey world and a clear split between people who think Pittsburgh is still in their window to win again and people who believe they are not," Burke said during a Hockey Central appearance on Jan. 28. "You've gotta be buying or selling in the NHL. My theory was always we're getting good fast, we're getting bad fast.

"They don't have any picks coming up in the next draft. They've tried to win, they tried to be competitive, they took on the (Mike) Matheson contract. Clearly there's a split. For one, as much respect as I have for Jimmy (Rutherford), I don't have the Pittsburgh Penguins in the window. I think their time has past with that group."

Burke was asked about comments like those and how that lines up with the Penguins' desire to keep pushing forward. He said he won't back away from any opinion he shared as a member of the media, but that when you're actually working within a team, you have the means to make the necessary changes.

"I also think when you have pieces like we have here you gotta try to win," Burke said, while noting Crosby is the best player he's had on any of the five teams he's been GM for.

What if the Penguins miss the playoffs this season? Heck, what if they get there and are put out quickly again? It's not a crazy thing to ponder right now. Do you consider moving on from Letang or Malkin before their contracts expire, and try and build out a better organization that way?

It's a scenario that's been talked about on sports radio again and again over the years but now, with this management group, with these players at the stages they are in their careers, and the team in the state it's in, the situation could once and for all come to a head if the Penguins fall short of annual lofty expectations again.

With a GM who has a reputation as a builder, and a boss with a reputation for making big splashes, a new and different door could open.

Stay tuned.

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