Brian Burke is already talking about bringing ‘ugly hockey’ to Penguins

Beyond the comedy of seeing the former fiery Flyers goalie running the Penguins, Ron Hextall becoming the Penguins’ next GM wasn’t that surprising. Brian Burke becoming the Penguins’ president of hockey operations, though? Few of us saw that coming.

But here’s something we maybe should have seen coming. Burke — the man who introduced many hockey fans to the word “truculence,” like Gorilla Monsoon popularizing “solar plexus” — is talking about bringing grit (“ugly hockey”) to the Penguins.

Burke plays to truculent type: bringing ‘ugly hockey’ to Penguins

During an appearance on The Fan Morning Show (93.7 in Pittsburgh), Burke provided a glimpse of how he might want the Penguins to change, and an … interesting take on what made the Lightning so successful.

Let’s dissect Burke’s comments about the Penguins, Lightning, and so on:

  • However you feel about Burke’s take on the game, his vocabulary remains a delight. “Long pants hockey” almost made me choke on my coffee.
  • It’s truly remarkable how many “hockey people” witnessed the Lightning’s Stanley Cup run and ignored the impact of small, quick, skilled players like Brayden Point.

Sure, the Lightning are versatile. They have some larger players, particularly Victor Hedman. But in adding functional grinders like Blake Coleman and Barclay Goodrow, the Lightning opened the door for misinterpretations.

Coleman and Goodrow merely made a deep team deeper, but the Lightning won their Stanley Cup because of brilliant, skilled top players, and a front office that made a slew of wise decisions.

The Penguins can absolutely take lessons from the Lightning, not to mention the Blues and Capitals before them. If you want a more functional view of how Goodrow and Coleman made a great Lightning team even better, consider this great piece from Kent Wilson.

Perhaps Burke’s comments about bringing “ugly hockey” to the Penguins won’t provide foreshadowing, though. Let’s remember that Burke jumped through many hoops to bring Daniel and Henrik Sedin to the Canucks. His Maple Leafs teams were as much about landing Phil Kessel as any other move.

To assume that Burke would flush skill out of Pittsburgh altogether would be an overreaction.

Still, it’s a situation worth monitoring, because the Penguins’ previous pursuit of grit/”ugly hockey” ended up, well, ugly.

Pittsburgh’s paid for its pursuit of pugilience in the past

As PHT’s Adam Gretz has chronicled more than once, the Penguins reacted to winning consecutive Stanley Cups as a “small, fast team” in a strange way.

Despite getting the last laugh with those back-to-back championships, then-GM Jim Rutherford didn’t like the way the Penguins were being “pushed around.”

“We’re getting a little bit tired of getting beat up game after game,” Rutherford said back in 2017.

In calling his shot, the Penguins pursued Ryan Reaves, giving up Oskar Sundqvist and a first-rounder. In hindsight, this push for puglience began the Penguins’ slide to the flawed team they are today.

Much of the focus was on bringing in bigger bodies. Yet, from Erik Gudbranson to Jamie Oleksiak to Reaves and even Jack Johnson, the Penguins merely kept the carousel moving.

Considering how poorly all of that went, you can understand why Penguins fans flinch at Burke talking about grit and “ugly hockey.” Frankly, it sounds like he wants to only slightly remix the off-key tune Rutherford just belted out.

Of course, what really matters is the direction the Penguins actually take. If they add functional grit — grinding players who can drive play, preferably with speed — then don’t trip putting on those long pants. That could be nifty.

Will Hextall and Burke see eye-to-eye?

It’s also fair to wonder how much Burke’s vision will matter with Ron Hextall as GM.

Like Rutherford, Burke loves big, headline-grabbing trades. Both could probably wax nostalgic about various dustups in many rinks/barns. Hextall, meanwhile, rebuilt the Flyers and helped build the championship-era Kings mostly through zen-like patience.

Of course, Mario Lemieux can attest to Hextall being truculent enough. It’s one thing to meticulously rebuild a Flyers team that was a cap catastrophe. It’s another to try to balance the Penguins’ worries about the future with the goals of winning one more with Crosby and Malkin.

For all we know, Burke can provide the sort of headline fodder the media loves, while Hextall nods and just does things his way. (PHT’s Adam Gretz went deep on how that approach might look.)

But there’s at least some room for drama. As Pierre LeBrun of the Athletic noted upon the Penguins hiring Burke and Hextall (sub required), the two haven’t worked with each other before. From LeBrun’s reports, it sounds like Lemieux made a late decision to include Burke in a powerful position.

But it was Lemieux himself, as Penguins CEO David Morehouse revealed Tuesday, who suggested that they approach Burke about joining in a POHO capacity (an idea which they also ran through owner Ron Burkle). The Penguins had already been using Burke as a sounding board on GM candidates.

Overall, it will be fascinating to see how the Burke + Hextall regime works out for the Penguins. Could there be undercurrents of differing philosophies, somewhat like the Maple Leafs seemingly experienced with Kyle Dubas, Lou Lamoriello, and Mike Babcock? Will Burke be mostly hands-off, letting Hextall make his mark? Could it be a case-by-case situation?

Either way, things are rarely dull with Burke or the Penguins. Even if the hockey ends up “ugly.”

James O’Brien is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @cyclelikesedins.

Scroll Down For:

    Lightning donate $2 million to Hurricane Ian relief efforts

    tampa bay lightning
    Scott Audette/Getty Images
    0 Comments

    TAMPA, Fla. — The Tampa Bay Lightning and team owner Jeff Vinik are donating $2 million toward Hurricane Ian relief efforts.

    The NHL team announced Friday that $1 million each will be donated by the Tampa Bay Lightning Foundation and the Vinik Family Foundation.

    “This is a tragic situation for many families and communities across the state of Florida, but especially so in the southwest region of the state,” Vinik said in a statement released by the team. “In times like these the most important thing we can do is support one another, and we hope this donation will help families recover and rebuild in the months to come.”

    Ian made landfall Wednesday on Florida’s Gulf Coast, south of the Tampa Bay area. The Lightning postponed two home preseason games and moved the club’s training camp to Nashville, Tennessee, during the storm.

    Maple Leafs sign defenseman Rasmus Sandin to 2-year deal

    Rasmus Sandin
    Julian Avram/Getty Images
    2 Comments

    TORONTO — Rasmus Sandin has signed a two-year, $2.8 million contract with the Toronto Maple Leafs, the club announced on Thursday.

    The 22-year-old from Sweden was the 29th overall selection in the 2018 draft. Sandin had 16 points in 51 games with Toronto last season. He’s played in 88 career regular-season games, with six goals and 22 assists, and has one goal in five playoff games.

    “Got a great set of tools,” fellow defenseman Jake Muzzin said. “With experience, I think they’re only going to get better.”

    The signing comes as the Leafs’ blueliners been hit hard by injuries. Muzzin has been dealing with a back issue, and Timothy Liljegren recently had surgery for a hernia.

    Toronto then lost Jamie Benn (groin) and Carl Dahlstrom (shoulder) in Wednesday’s 3-0 preseason victory over the Montreal Canadiens, pressing forwards Calle Jarnkrok and Alexander Kerfoot into defensive roles for two periods.

    Back with Wild, Fleury welcomes big workload as clear No. 1

    marc-andre fleury
    David Berding/Getty Images
    2 Comments

    ST. PAUL, Minn. — With his ever-present smile, tireless approach and long list of accomplishments in the net, Marc-Andre Fleury has always embraced a heavy workload.

    The Minnesota Wild sure haven’t shied away from leaning hard on their new – and 37-year-old – goalie. After arriving in a deadline-day trade in March and re-signing with the Wild in July, the guy everyone calls “Flower” is still fully abloom as he begins his 19th season in the NHL.

    “They say, `You play,’ I play, unless maybe I’m hurt or something,” Fleury said. “But other than that, I like playing.”

    Wild general manager Bill Guerin initially planned to bring back both Fleury and Cam Talbot, who made the All-Star team and went 13-0-3 in his last 16 regular season starts before being benched in favor of Fleury for the first-round playoff series against St. Louis. The Wild lost in six games, after Talbot got the cold start in the elimination game and gave up four goals on 26 shots.

    Guerin changed his mind, though, after signing Fleury to a two-year, $7 million contract. Realizing Talbot’s frustration from the lack of postseason action, he didn’t want to risk any tension or discontent. Talbot was traded to Ottawa for Filip Gustavsson, who will be the No. 2 goalie while top prospect Jesper Wallstedt gets more development in the AHL.

    Gustavsson has only 23 career regular-season starts, nearly 200 fewer than Talbot, so it’s a good bet that Fleury will get the majority of the games.

    “I was ready to share the load with him, but things didn’t work out and happy to be having the chance to play maybe a bit more. It’s fun to play. It’s more fun than sitting on the bench,” said Fleury, who went 28-23-5 in 56 combined starts for Chicago and Minnesota last season with a 2.90 goals against average and a .908 save percentage.

    The Wild reconvened for training camp last week, beginning their quest to recapture the mojo they enjoyed last season while setting franchise records for points (113), wins (53) and goals (305). The only team that finished ahead of them in the Western Conference was Colorado, which went on to win the Stanley Cup, but they never met the Avs in the playoffs because the Blues got to them first.

    There’s a strong chemistry in place, at least, to build upon.

    “We still have a lot of guys here who were here last year. We’re just trying to make it even better, just trying to listen to everybody,” center Joel Eriksson Ek said. “We want to set a standard and a way for how hard this team’s going to work.”

    The Wild start the regular season by hosting the New York Rangers on Oct. 13.

    COMINGS AND GOINGS

    The most significant roster move of the summer amongst the skaters was the inevitable salary-cap-driven trade of second-leading scorer Kevin Fiala to Los Angeles. Fiala had a career-high 33 goals and 52 assists last season. Guerin otherwise dabbled mostly in two-way contracts in free agency for depth. Former Anaheim center Sam Steel signed with Minnesota last month, one day after defenseman Dimitry Kulikov was dealt to the Ducks.

    MORE POWER

    The Wild were done in during the playoffs by abysmal special teams. They went just 4 for 24 on the power play against the Blues, and head coach Dean Evason had the team working on that on the first day on the ice. The penalty kill that lagged last season was a focus of the second practice.

    “It has to get better, no question,” Evason said.

    BLUE LINE SHUFFLE

    Captain Jared Spurgeon has been placed with Jonas Brodin on the first pair on defense, and Jake Middleton has joined Matt Dumba on the second unit. Dumba and Brodin are close friends who’ve been paired together for several seasons.

    “Dumbs is a shooter too,” said Middleton, who re-signed for three years and $7.35 million. “It’s pretty exciting. I can get some cookies passing him the puck. That’d be a big plus. I think it’ll work well. He loves hitting guys too. He plays a gritty game as well so I think we’ll be a good combo.”

    UP FRONT

    With Jordan Greenway recovering from offseason surgeries, Tyson Jost will get the first chance to skate with Eriksson Ek and Marcus Foligno. The departure of Fiala has opened at least one spot for a rookie to make the team, with 2020 first-round draft pick Marco Rossi in line for it.

    ON THE SLATE

    This is the first time in eight years the Wild will play their regular-season opener at home. After three more games at Xcel Energy Center, they don’t hit the road until a five-game trip that starts Oct. 22 at Boston. The Wild have a season-long nine-game homestand from Feb. 9-21.

    Stars expect to open camp without unsigned scorer Jason Robertson

    Sergei Belski-USA TODAY Sports
    0 Comments

    FRISCO, Texas — Young 40-goal scorer Jason Robertson is expected to miss the start of training camp for the Dallas Stars because the team and the restricted free agent haven’t agreed on a new contract.

    General manager Jim Nill said there’s been steady, ongoing negotiations over the last couple of weeks with Robertson and his representatives. Nill wouldn’t say what has kept the two sides from reaching a deal, adding there have been “very good discussions.”

    The Stars, with new coach Pete DeBoer, open camp Thursday in Cedar Park, Texas, at the home of their AHL team. They have three days of work there before returning to North Texas for their exhibition opener at home on Monday night. They open the regular season Oct. 13 at Nashville.

    “I think he’s disappointed he’s not at camp, we are too,” Nill said before the team departed for the Austin area. “I think it’s very important for a younger player and as you mentioned, the (new) coaching staff. … We do have some time on our side, but we wish he gets here as soon as he can.”

    Robertson had a base salary of $750,000 last season, the end of a $2.775 million, three-year contract. He still has five more years before he has the opportunity to become an unrestricted free agent.

    The left wing turned 23 soon after the end of last season, when he had 41 goals and 38 assists for 79 points in his 74 games. Robertson joined Hockey Hall of Famer Mike Modano, Jamie Benn and Tyler Seguin as the only 40-goal scorers since the franchise moved to Dallas in 1993.

    A second-round draft pick by the Stars in 2017, Robertson has 125 points (58 goals, 67 assists) in his 128 NHL games. He had one goal and three assists in his first postseason action last season, when Dallas lost its first-round playoff series in seven games against Calgary.

    DeBoer said he looks forward to coaching Robertson, but that the forward’s absence won’t change his plans for camp.

    “It doesn’t impact what I’m doing,” DeBoer said. “Listen, I laid awake at night with the excitement of coaching Jason Robertson, 40-plus goals, but he’s not here. So, you know, until he gets here, I can’t spend any energy on that.”

    Nill said the Stars are open to a long-term extension or a bridge contract for Robertson, who was part of the team’s top line last season with veteran Joe Pavelski and Roope Hintz. They combined for 232 points, the second-most in franchise history for a trio.

    “We’re open to anything. But other than that … I’m not going to negotiate through the media,” Nill said. “As I said, we’ve had good conversations. We’ll see where it goes.”