When you look at the spectrum of NHL general managers it would be nearly impossible to find two people at more polar opposite ends with how they build their rosters than Jim Rutherford and Ron Hextall.
That is what makes the Penguins decision to hire the latter as Rutherford’s replacement on Tuesday such a fascinating move. It might also give us an idea as to where ownership and management see this team going in the not-too-distant future.
There is also the Brian Burke element at play here as he was hired to head hockey operations, but for now let’s focus our energy on Hextall because he will presumably be the one driving the bus here.
All we can go by at this point is the track record, as well as the approach he put in place in his previous stops with the Flyers as GM and Los Angeles Kings as assistant GM.
It was about drafting. Patience. A long-term outlook that you never deviate from with knee-jerk reactions. That patience and overall approach may have even been his ultimate undoing, as Flyers management cited a thirst for a “bias for action” in his replacement.
Rutherford, on the other hand, has always been a managerial bull in a china shop. He never met a trade he did not like. Draft picks? Let the next guy worry about draft picks. A roster move or coaching hire is not working out and paying immediate dividends? Time to change. If he wanted a free agent, he was going to get that free agent no matter the term or dollar amount it would require (say hello to Jack Johnson and Brandon Tanev).
From a big picture standpoint, you can not argue with the results. They won a lot of games in Rutherford’s six-plus seasons. His one and only job was to maximize the prime years of Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin and give the Penguins another banner to hang in the rafters. He ended up giving them two more. Those hang forever.
[Related: Penguins hire Ron Hextall, Brian Burke]
None of this is meant as a criticism. It simply to point out how drastically different these two executives worked to build their cross-state rivals. To get a sense of that difference, let me give you some numbers.
Rutherford completed 52 trades as Penguins GM. Some significant, some inconsequential, but still roster moves. That comes out to an average of more than eight trades per year. That is a lot.
He only made 35 draft picks in seven draft classes. That is a net of minus-seven from the allotment of draft picks it started with. Only two of those draft picks were in the first round, and one of those picks (Kasperi Kapanen) was traded a year later only to be re-acquired this past offseason after five years in Toronto.
Of those 35 draft picks, only five of them have played even a single game in the NHL, and none since the 2015 class. Only three of them (Kapanen, Daniel Sprong and Dominik Simon) are currently regular NHLers.
Everything was win at all costs right now. And again, that was what the situation demanded. And it worked.
Hextall, on the other hand, was the polar opposite.
In his four-plus seasons as Flyers GM he completed just 14 trades, most of them smaller or focussed on shedding bad contracts. His most consequential trade was dealing Brayden Schenn to St. Louis for two future first-round draft picks.
He made 42 draft picks in five draft classes. That is a net gain of seven draft picks from where they would have started.
Eight of those draft picks were in the first-round, including multiple years where they made two first-round picks (2015, 2017, and 2018).
Already 16 of those players have appeared in the NHL, while several of them are not only regulars, but impact players. That includes Travis Konecny, Ivan Provorov, Carter Hart, Nolan Patrick, Travis Sanheim, and Oskar Lindblom, with several others on their way to reaching that level (Joel Farabee, Morgan Frost). They not only made a lot of draft picks under his watch, they made a lot of good ones. The same could said for the Kings during Hextall’s time as assistant GM between 2006 and 2012.
What does this mean for the Penguins?
The initial reaction is that ownership probably has an understanding of the flaws with the current organization and the job that is ahead for the new GM. As long as you have Crosby and Malkin winning is going to be the top priority. But with each passing season where they get further and further into their 30s and away from their prime years, you have to be aware of the fact they may not be able to carry you the way they once did. At some point you are going to have to deal with a reality where they are not there to build around.
Because of the “win now” approach that existed for so long (and it was the absolute right approach, do not lose sight of that) the long-term cupboard is completely barren. The farm system is thin, they do not have a full complement of draft picks this year, and they have some contracts that could get messy in the future.
Those were the areas Hextall thrived with the Flyers.
The wild card to all of this is Burke and his role.
That is another big — massive, even — personality in the room that is going to have a lot of say in what direction the organization takes, and he may not have the same level of patience as Hextall. It could be an interesting dynamic. In the end it likely comes down to how big of a voice Burke wants to have and how much he wants to dictate the direction. If he is there to oversee things, offer a different voice, and allow Hextall to run the team as he sees fit that would be quite a bit different than if he decides to play a more active role.