PITTSBURGH — Ron Hextall, Pittsburgh Penguin. Yeah, it might take some getting used to.
Still, longtime Penguins captain Sidney Crosby pointed to the club’s decision to hire Hextall – long associated as both a player and an executive with cross-state rival Philadelphia – as the team’s new general manager as proof that the NHL is in essence one big family.
“It’s funny when you think about it, you don’t ever anticipate that,” Crosby said Wednesday, a day after the Penguins brought in Hextall to replace Hall of Famer Jim Rutherford, who resigned abruptly last month. “I think you find yourself saying that a lot in hockey, that it finds a way of bringing people together in different circumstances.”
Hextall spent 11 of his 13 seasons in the NHL as a goalie with the Flyers, often clashing with Pittsburgh superstar Mario Lemieux, who now happens to be Hextall’s boss. He even spent four-plus years as Philadelphia’s general manager, where one of his main jobs was to find a way to build a roster capable of toppling Crosby and the Penguins. Now, his gig is to surround Crosby and Evgeni Malkin with a team talented enough to make a deep playoff run.
Bringing on a former nemesis to build a winner isn’t exactly new territory in Pittsburgh. The Penguins acquired Philadelphia forward Rick Tocchet in February 1992 on the way to the Stanley Cup. Tocchet won two more Cups as an assistant coach with the Penguins in 2016 and ’17.
It speaks to the whirlwind nature of Hextall and new president of hockey operations Brian Burke’s courtship that neither had spoken to Crosby or Penguins coach Mike Sullivan until after the ink on their respective contracts was dry.
While they exchanged pleasantries on Wednesday morning, there’s no time for a honeymoon period. Most front-office overhauls happen during the offseason. Not this one. Rutherford’s stunning exit came two weeks into a 56-game sprint. There will be no feeling-out process. It will be trial and error done on the fly in one of the NHL’s most competitive divisions.
Yet filling the positions does give Pittsburgh something it’s lacked during the last month: some semblance of normalcy. The 5-5-1 start has been filled with a steady stream of injuries to defenseman, a power play that’s been largely ineffective and a schedule that’s been erratic thanks to a COVID-19 outbreak involving the New Jersey Devils. They’ve played just once over the last week, a double-edged sword of sorts.
Sure, it allows some of their injured players to get healthy. Defenseman Marcus Pettersson practiced Wednesday and is nearing a return from an upper-body injury. And it lets the coaching staff address some of the issues that have popped up. But it’s also allowed things like the sting of a 4-3 loss to the New York Islanders last Saturday – a game in which the Penguins let a third-period lead slip away – linger longer than usual.
Throw in the regime change above them and yeah, it’s a lot to take in.
“I think there’s so much going on from an injury standpoint, games being shifted and moved,” Crosby said. “Our job is just playing and focusing on that … our mindset and mentality is just on playing games and making sure that we’re just getting better.”
Sullivan and Rutherford worked together closely while helping lead the Penguins to consecutive Stanley Cups. While Sullivan has a relationship with Burke stemming from their time working with the U.S. World Cup team, he and Hextall haven’t frequented the same circles.
Asked if he could recall the one goal he scored against Hextall during his own decadelong career as a defensive-minded forward – a late game-tying tally on Dec. 12, 1992, while Sullivan was with San Jose and Hextall was in Quebec – Sullivan said he did not.
“My recollection of Ron as a goalie was that he was a fierce competitor and he wanted to win,” Sullivan said. “He had a tremendous career. I’m sure he’ll bring that competitive spirit to our management team as well.”
Sullivan disagreed with the idea that trying to develop a rapport in midseason is a “challenge,” repeatedly using the word “opportunity” instead.
“These guys are really smart guys,” Sullivan said. “I think the objective is the same. And that’s to try and win the Stanley Cup with the core we have here and … from my standpoint, my job doesn’t change. I’m going to coach this team the best way I know how. We’re going to coach this team the best way we know how to give us the best chance to win every night.”