PITTSBURGH – The Pittsburgh Penguins asked Ron Hextall and Brian Burke to thread an impossibly thin needle when they were hired in February 2021.
Hextall, the general manager, and Burke, the director of hockey operations, were asked to find a way to prop open the championship window for stars Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin and Kris Letang without sacrificing the club’s long-term future.
After a little over two sometimes turbulent years that produced a significant lack of progress on either front, Hextall and Burke are out of a job.
The team fired Hextall, Burke and assistant general manager Chris Pryor on Friday after the Penguins failed to reach the playoffs for the first time in 17 years.
The decision to part with the trio came less than 24 hours after the end of a wildly uneven season in which Pittsburgh went 40-31-11 and finished ninth in the Eastern Conference to end the longest active postseason streak in major North American professional sports.
“Not everything that happened to the team is their fault,” president of business operations Kevin Acklin said at a news conference about the shakeup. “I think everybody can take that into account.”
Fenway Sports Group owner John Henry and company chairman Tom Werner said in a joint statement that “the team will benefit from new hockey operations leadership.”
They added they “believe in our core group of players and the goal of contending for the Stanley Cup has not changed.”
Burke, who came to Pittsburgh after stops in Anaheim, Toronto and Calgary as well as a stint in broadcasting, tweeted shortly after his dismissal that he was “grateful” to work in such a “passionate sports town.”
Hextall and Burke were hired shortly after the abrupt midseason resignation of former general manager Jim Rutherford, who built a team that won back-to-back Stanley Cup titles in 2016 and 2017.
While Hextall managed to sign Malkin and Letang to team-friendly deals last summer rather than let them walk in free agency, most of the roster decisions to build around the club’s core backfired.
Pittsburgh struggled to generate much offense outside its top two lines and the defense provided little stability outside of Letang and Marcus Pettersson. Goaltending also became an issue, as injuries and inconsistent play at the position cost the Penguins dearly in the 2021 and 2022 playoffs.
The search for a general manager will begin immediately, with several members of the club’s American Hockey League affiliate in Wilkes Barre/Scranton taking over day-to-day operations in the interim.
“These jobs are not one-person, two-person jobs,” co-head of Fenway Sports Management and Penguins alternate governor Dave Beeston said. “They are entire department-wide, and so what we’re focused on building is a hockey operations machine and something that can build on what we’ve already got, which is exceptional, and improve it.”
Pittsburgh’s longtime coach Mike Sullivan will also assist during the transition, a sign the club has no intention of moving on from Sullivan, who signed a contract extension last fall that will run through the 2026-27 season.
“We think Mike Sullivan’s one of the best coaches in the NHL,” Beeston said. “Once we bring in a new hockey operations leader, he or she will be responsible for evaluating the coaching staff. But we think Mike is terrific and his whole staff is terrific.”
Whoever takes over will have some difficult decisions to make. Pittsburgh has several undesirable contracts for aging players like center Jeff Carter, forward Mikael Granlund and defenseman Jeff Petry, all of whom were brought in during Hextall’s tenure.
Carter performed well immediately upon his arrival in the spring of 2021 and appeared a good fit at the time his extension was announced in January 2022. Yet the 38-year-old had just 29 points this season despite playing 79 games and his minus-16 rating was the third-worst of his lengthy career.
Petry, flipped for defenseman Mike Matheson last summer, had issues staying healthy and didn’t become an offensive threat the way Pittsburgh imagined. The 35-year-old still has two years left on a deal that will pay him $6.25 million.
Granlund, acquired at this year’s trade deadline from Nashville, made a minimal impact with the Penguins, collecting just one goal and four assists in 21 games. The 31-year-old still has two years to go on a contract that pays him $5 million a season.
The new general manager must also figure out what to do in goal. Two-time All-Star Tristan Jarry will become a free agent this summer but had multiple health issues and posted a career-worst 2.90 goals against average.
Hextall said shortly after the All-Star break he believed there were many teams that could win the Stanley Cup and that the Penguins were one of them.
Pittsburgh, however, stumbled down the stretch, mixing solid victories over teams like Colorado with baffling losses to the NHL’s also-rans. The nadir came on Tuesday night at home against Chicago.
Needing only victories over the Blackhawks and Columbus to extend the club’s playoff streak to 17, Pittsburgh instead let Chicago pull away for a 5-2 victory and the Penguins were eliminated a night later when the New York Islanders topped Montreal.
Chants of “Fire Hextall!” sprouted briefly late in the third period against the Blackhawks with Pittsburgh trailing by multiple goals.
Just over 72 hours later, Hextall was gone.