It had all been a breeze for Ron Hextall and Brian Burke.
Seen as a massive undertaking, or a weight-of-the-hockey-world sort of responsibility, orchestrating one last meaningful postseason run in the Sidney Crosby-Evgeni Malkin era was instead a chance to kick back, enjoy the catering, and to be entertained by a successful organization's charge toward the Stanley Cup playoffs.
The Pittsburgh Penguins took off — to the moon, style — the moment two-time Stanley Cup architect Jim Rutherford was fired and replaced with two hockey men with equally extensive hockey footprints. Hextall and Burke needn't make widespread changes; the framework for a division winner was right there in the dressing room already, despite the horrid start.
This was proven when the Penguins clinched the East Division title, arguably the NHL's toughest in its pandemic-season realignment, on the final day of their regular season.
Pittsburgh went 32-11-2 in 45 games with Hextall and Burke at the helm and, again, without them barely lifting a finger. It ranked as the second-best record in the NHL from the time of their hiring. Other than some administrative work in the day, maybe calling up a player or two from the taxi squad or to remain cap compliant by night, the light work meant Hextall and Burke could mainly just settle comfortably into their leather-bound stools to watch Crosby lead the Penguins to win after win, and in the process build something of a Hart Trophy candidacy.
With little to do, it seemed Hextall and Burke had time to think outside the box.
Understanding the cap restraints and weakness of the prospect system, the Penguins looked to take a problem off another team's hands in order to improve their own. That M.O. led to the management team's lone bold stroke, and one of the the most clever and ultimately most effective moves at the trade deadline. The Penguins nabbed veteran centre and Stanley Cup champion Jeff Carter — for the stretch run and also a subsequent season, each for half the cost — in exchange for just two mid-round draft picks.
With improved depth and insurance at centre with a luxury at the No. 3 hole through 2022, the Penguins had the look of a Stanley Cup contender.
Not unlike most things, it turned out to be too good to be true for Hextall and Burke.
Pittsburgh was bounced in the first round of the playoffs in six games Wednesday night at the hands of the New York Islanders.
It was a tight series, and in the neighbourhood of 50-50 in terms of run of play, characteristic to the division itself. But Penguins netminder Tristan Jarry couldn't match the goaltending (or goaltenders) of the Islanders, and the series swung hard in the direction of the No. 4 seed in the East Division for that reason alone.
Crosby: "This is probably the ultimate learning experience."
Hear the captain following tonight’s game ⬇️ pic.twitter.com/ytabUMq34I
— Pittsburgh Penguins (@penguins) May 27, 2021
It's a difficult upshot for the Penguins. It feels like a waste, like a missed opportunity, like an outcome that was slightly out of their control due to Jarry's struggles and the fact that his backup, Casey DeSmith, was unavailable.
But what's done is done. And now that task, to pull one more championship charge from a core closing in on the back half of their 30s, seems that much more difficult.
While Crosby remains under contract for another four seasons, the players that have been along for the ride — or rides — are all reaching the end of the line, at least contractually.
Malkin, turning 35 this summer, has one last season on his current deal, while Kris Letang, Bryan Rust and Carter are also on the verge of unrestricted free agency. Kasperi Kapanen and Jared McCann will also need new contracts in 2022, though they will remain under team control.
Significant, irreversible change is coming to a Penguins franchise with three Stanley Cups, loosely, in its current form, which leaves Hextall and Burke with one summer, and one swing, at piecing together a roster around a core rapidly reaching its expiration date.
Problematically, Pittsburgh has over $45 million committed to forwards and $25 million tied up in defensemen next season, but the opportunities to make changes should be there.
The expansion draft, while designed to take from each team, could prove to be useful if the Penguins' negotiation skills hold up, while the option to execute a buyout will be there as well.
But the priority has to be the goaltending, something Hextall, a legendary former goalie himself, will be keenly aware of.
You have to trust that he can improve the situation in net, because he's done it before. But it seems entirely possible that the last, best version of the Penguins was spoiled by failures at that position.
It's something, maybe, that they couldn't quite plan for. But it's something management, and by extension Crosby, Malkin and Letang, aren't getting back.
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