Chris Mueller: Keeping core intact the right move for Hextall, Penguins

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Now that the dust has settled and the most major offseason moves have been made, we should thank Ron Hextall for one thing; he’s made the process of analyzing the Pittsburgh Penguins’ offseason and future plans very simple, and very straightforward.

Every big move Hextall has made so far – keeping Kris Letang and Evgeni Malkin, re-signing Rickard Rakell, trading Mike Matheson for Jeff Petry – has made very clear what the franchise’s plan is for the immediate future.

-They’re going to try to win more Stanley Cups.

-They’re going to do it with old guys. Most of them are the same old, but some of them, like the 34-year-old Petry, are “different” old. Make no mistake though, old is the operative word. In fact, as of this writing, the Penguins have the oldest team in the league by average age, at exactly 30 years old, per CapFriendly.

-They’re not going to concern themselves with what comes after Malkin and Letang’s latest contracts expire. Why worry about what will be an ugly rebuild when there is potential fun left to be had?

That’s a pretty straightforward three-point plan, if you ask me. And it’s the right one. I haven’t really found any other long-range strategies to be particularly compelling.

The “tear it down and rebuild it” plan? That one stunk from the start. It seemed more a reaction to continued first-round playoff exits than a real, reasoned course of action. Getting bounced in the first round is what it is, but not all defeats are created equal. The Penguins were better than the Rangers this year, but Louis Domingue did them in.

These Penguins aren’t the Chicago Blackhawks, and they aren’t going to suddenly disintegrate like those teams did. Why? Because Sidney Crosby is orders of magnitude better than Patrick Kane and Jonathan Toews, and Malkin, when healthy, is as well. It’s also worth noting that Crosby and Malkin were never inked to crippling contracts like Kane and Toews, not to mention several other members of Chicago’s extremely successful 2010-2015 group.

Several years without a playoff series victory is frustrating, but the Penguins have always been in the mix, always dangerous. A rebuild would be a panic move, and certainly not one assured to work. Plus, the Fenway Sports Group has to know that winning hockey puts fans in the seats in Pittsburgh, and bad, rebuilding hockey does not. Anyone around the Penguins circa 2003 can attest to that as well.

The “retool” plan made even less sense, and it too seemed motivated by frustration, particularly with Malkin, whose battles with injuries are very real, and a very legitimate concern. Here’s the thing; the whole notion of moving on from one of the five greatest players in franchise history while still trying to compete never made sense, because there was no way the Pens were going to find a replacement for him who checked the following three boxes: younger, cheaper, and better.

Pittsburgh native Vincent Trocheck? Come on. His contract has less annual value than Malkin’s four-year, $24.4 million deal, but at seven years, $39.375 million, is much more term-intensive. Plus, there’s the little matter of Trocheck not being better than Malkin. If he wasn’t from around here, no one would have seriously mentioned him as a candidate.

So no, retooling was never the right strategy, either. Nor was it realistic. It was the fever dream of fans and media tired of first round exits, a shakeup for shakeup’s sake.

What we’re left with is an old team that’s going to take one more serious crack at things. Good. They should. Crosby is still spectacular, Letang looks like a man five years younger, and Malkin, the wild card in the whole thing, has for his entire career been most dangerous when written off, doubted and denigrated.

Give that three-man nucleus good health, and they’re going to be a problem for anyone, particularly in a playoff series. Jake Guentzel is still around, and so is Bryan Rust. Rakell is a quality forward, and while there is a glut of right-shot defensemen on the roster, that seems like small potatoes at the moment.

Count me among those who looked at this year’s team and thought, “this is it, this is truly the last gasp for this iteration of the franchise.” I wrote as much on multiple occasions. Maybe I was wrong. This might be the contrarian in me, but the more I see grumbling about the team’s refusal to turn the page and start a new era, the happier I am that they resisted the temptation to do so, if there even was any to begin with.

The truth of the matter is, the Penguins’ best path to glory is the same it has always been; keep the core intact, fill in around it, and hope for good goaltending once the playoffs roll around. Mike Sullivan will keep this group playoff-bound, and then? Like this year’s postseason proved, what happens after that is a roll of the dice.

Yes, the Penguins are old. And you can’t teach an old dog new tricks. And old teams rarely win it all in the NHL. But this group doesn’t need any new tricks; they’ve climbed to the top of the mountain three times before. And if any team is capable of bucking league trends, it’s this one.

Meet the new Penguins, same as the old Penguins. And thank goodness for that.

This article originally appeared on Beaver County Times: Mueller: Keeping core intact the right move for Hextall, Penguins