The pens have finally fired Ron Hextall, and I couldn’t be happier. When I think about the moves made by Hextall over the last few years to try to give us a shot at another cup, my mind draws a blank. I mean, in my mind he didn’t have a care in the world when it came to this organization, and it seemed like he was perfectly content with wasting Crosby and Malkin’s last few years in the league. But let’s take a deeper look. Was Hextall really as bad as he seemed? Was this the right move for the pens? And most importantly, what more do we need to do moving forward…
Hextall’s Storied Journey in Pittsburgh:
Hextall was hired by the Pens in 2021, and ever since then, the team has gotten consistently worse. It started in his first year when Hextall used up all his forward protection spots ahead of the Seattle expansion draft and was forced to make a quick decision and trade Jared Mcann to the maple Leafs for Filip Hallander. This turned out absolutely horribly, as Mcann has blossomed into a star since the trade, collecting 120 points in the last two years, compared to his 67 points recorded during his two-year tenure in Pittsburgh. And Hallander, you guessed it, has not turned out to be a great return, playing just 3 games for the pens.
2021 was the start of an unsuccessful run in Pittsburgh, but let’s focus on Hextall’s work during the most recent 2022-23 season. Dealing with a pens team who this season could come out one night looking like the best team in the league and the next play like they were ranked last in the AHL, Hextall needed to make some moves before the trade deadline if we wanted a chance at playoffs. But, predictably, he didn’t. The only notable move Ron made was getting rid of Kasperi Kapanen, who wasn’t performing well, but Hextall replaced him with Mikael Granlund, who only played 21 games for the Pens and put up 5 points. It wasn’t really a bad move, but it just wasn’t what we needed. Tristan Jarry was playing through an injury most of this season, and it showed. He boasted a 0.9 save percentage this season, which isn’t horrible, but it really would have helped coming down the stretch if we had a goalie other than Casey Desmith to back up an injured Jarry. Hextall didn’t see it this way, however, and no moves were made to give the pens a better puck stopper.
Ron also seemed indifferent about bolstering the supporting cast around Crosby and Malkin, which seems incredibly foolish considering that when neither of the two stars were on the ice, the Pens had a -24-goal differential, compared to a plus 1 when one of them is playing. This is absolutely ridiculous, and Hextall’s failure to recognize the need for a good supporting cast led to the final epic failure of his run in Pittsburgh: missing the playoffs. A 16-year playoff streak snapped. Hextall was handed a somewhat solid team in 2021 that MADE the playoffs and took them to a point where rebuilding is a strong consideration. The real question to me is: why was he hired? Hextall is known for developing young players and rebuilding teams like he did with the flyers. So why was he hired as the general manager for a team with aging stars that are trying to contend for the Stanley cup. I don’t think anyone has the answer, but we’re glad he’s gone.
Now, is this all Hextall’s fault? What about the pens coach, Mike Sullivan. Is he to blame for any of this? I mean, he is the winningest coach in pens history, but he’s not exempt from losing his job. Let’s see if this is called for.
Mike Sullivan: Victim of poor management; or an overstayed welcome
In a league where the average tenure for a coach is 2 and a half years, Mike Sullivan is an anomaly. He has just finished his seventh year coaching the pens, and questions are finally starting to arise about his ability to continue leading this team to success. Now, there is a reason why the shelf life for NHL coaches is so short. With a league that changes so frequently, teams need to be commonly rearranged, and one of the easiest things to change where you will see an effect is the coaching staff. Coaches can become stale and unable to reach the players after a certain point, and this is when they have overstayed their welcome. This might currently be happening with Mike Sullivan.
Recently, he has seemed to be having a hard time motivating his players, especially his stars. At the end of the season when playoffs were on the line, Malkin and Crosby didn’t perform any better than they had all season. For example, Malkin had a -4-goal differential in the second to last game of the season vs the Blackhawks. This was arguably the most important game of the season as the pens were fighting for a playoff spot, and Malkin just seemed sluggish. You’d think this would be the type of game stars play for, but the effort didn’t really show. It’s hard to say if this exact problem can be blamed on Mike Sullivan, but he definitely deserves criticism for this end of season collapse. That being said, the reason the pens were even in this position in the first place was because of the poor management from Hextall.
It’s definitely hard to say whether the coaching or lack of productive pieces was what led to the pen’s downfall. This is why in the end I believe Sullivan deserves one last chance. It’s just so difficult to write him off after one bad season, especially after knowing how horrible the Pens front office has been. After being with us for seven years and owning the title of winningest coach in franchise history, I find it hard to call for Sullivan’s firing. I do think the Pens are headed in the right direction by firing Hextall, however, and letting LeMieux have a more active role in the franchise is definitely the right move. Hopefully we can rebound next year and find our way into the playoffs, and if we don’t, it’ll be Sullivans head I’m calling for next.