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Decisions on Malkin and Letang Will Set the Course For the Pens' Future

If Jim Rutherford were still GM of the Pittsburgh Penguins, we wouldn't even be having this conversation. But with Ron Hextall in the big chair, the organization faces some vexing dilemmas.
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In his 16 seasons with the Pittsburgh Penguins, Sidney Crosby has more than done his bit for the organization. Like Mario Lemieux, his mere presence saved the franchise during some dark times. His otherworldly talents and marketability helped get the Penguins a new arena and all the revenue streams that come with it. 

The Sidney Crosby Little Penguins program he established in 2008 has outfitted more than 13,000 kids with free equipment and ice and some of those kids have gone on to play Division I hockey. He has been the driving force behind three Stanley Cups and has helped place the Penguins among the league’s elite franchises. He has not only been a top-five player all-time, he has been one of the most important players the game has ever had.

But as he talked about the third straight season in which his team had been bounced from the first round of the playoffs, Crosby made it clear what he is not. “I’ve never been one to be the GM,” he said after his team’s 5-3 loss in Game 6 of the first-round playoff series against the New York Islanders. “I’m not going to start now.”

For a superstar, Crosby has an enormous amount of respect for those who stay in their lanes. So he’s not about to go into GM Ron Hextall’s office and pound on the desk demanding the Penguins keep their core intact and go out and get a goaltender who can make saves in pressure situations. But he also made it clear that he still believes in this core group and believes it still has some long playoff runs left in it.

And he might be right. You could certainly be on the winning side of an argument if you said the main difference in this series was goaltending. After all, the Penguins outshot the Islanders 231-186 over the course of the series. The Islanders were outshot in each one of their four victories. You could make the case that the Penguins’ losses in Games 1, 5 and 6 of the series could be directly attributable to inferior goaltending. There is simply no way you’re going to win anything if your goalie is the second-best one on the ice that often. Too many times in recent years, the Penguins have made defensive juggernauts such as the Islanders look like the Montreal Canadiens circa 1976.

So all of this talk of breaking up the band might just be silly. As Crosby pointed out, “They’ve been saying that for four years, right?” On one hand, you don’t want to declare the window slammed shut because this group continues to surprise the hell out of people, as it did this season when it finished first in its division. But on the other hand, in the past three playoffs, the Penguins have had a combined 3-11 record and have been outscored 46-29. In this year’s post-season, the Penguins got plenty of secondary scoring. The only problem with that is it turned out to be their primary scoring. Crosby, Evgeni Malkin and Jake Guentzel each scored only one goal and Crosby was guilty of two uncharacteristic defensive miscues on Islander goals in Game 6. As for breakdowns in front of Tristan Jarry, there were plenty.

So now Hextall has a vexing decision on his hands. And how he responds to that decision will set a course for this franchise for years to come. If Jim Rutherford had kept the job, we know what would have happened. He would have continued to go for broke, making deals and signing players to keep this team a contender for as long as possible with no regard for how scorched the earth will look a couple of years down the road. And that’s OK. Because the objective is to win Stanley Cups. And when you think you have a realistic chance of doing that, you do everything within your power to make it happen.

But this is also a team that has just one pick, a second-rounder, in the first four rounds of this year’s draft. The math and history tell us there’s at least a decent possibility the 2021 draft will not produce a single full-time NHL player for the Penguins. It’s all well and good to say the Penguins have to keep going for it, but their attempts to keep pushing for a championship have resulted in first-round losses the past three seasons. They could have done that while rebuilding. Malkin, who has one year remaining on his contract, was injured much of this season, so we have no idea whether he’s in precipitous decline or not. Letang, who had a sneaky almost-Norris-worthy season, also has one year left on his deal. He led the Penguins in playoff scoring, but a couple of those pinches…

How Hextall deals with the future of those two players in particular will set the course for this franchise. The Penguins got more out of defensemen Mike Matheson and Cody Ceci than almost anyone thought possible. If Hextall decides Malkin and Letang still have a long playoff run left in them, and the likes of Guentzel, Jeff Carter and Bryan Rust can keep them offensively dangerous, perhaps it is just a matter of going out and getting a goalie who doesn’t get rattled by big games.

There is a new man in the big chair. And probably the last thing he should do when it comes to roster construction is take advice from the players who comprise it, because players are often the last to see what is objectively apparent to everyone else. So it’s best that Crosby doesn’t play GM here and let the guy who has years of management experience handle it.

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