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.
Some foreshadowing here?
Brian Burke with us: "Pittsburgh's the last team to win with a small, fast team. The last 3 Cup winners have been big, they play long pants hockey, they play ugly hockey. I think we need to look at that & see, have we kept up with the joneses here?"
— The Fan Morning Show (@FanMorningShow) February 12, 2021
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.
I love that we watch a free-flow, firewagon offense system rife with elite shooting talent like Kucherov, Stamkos, Point, and these fluid puck-moving defensemen and the takeaway is: "BIG SIZE CHECK BONK ON HEAD" https://t.co/Tv467M4Ual
— Jesse Marshall (@jmarshfof) February 12, 2021
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 firstname.lastname@example.org or follow him on Twitter @cyclelikesedins.