Penguins Hire Ron Hextall
After spending over four seasons running the Flyers, Ron Hextall is set to undertake his second NHL GM job with the Pittsburgh Penguins. (David Maialetti/Philadelphia Inquirer)

Penguins Hire Ron Hextall as General Manager

Two weeks ago, the shocking resignation of Jim Rutherford, architect of Pittsburgh’s 2016 and 2017 Cup winning clubs, left a massive hole in the Penguins front-office. With Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin, and Kris Letang’s dominant careers inching towards the home stretch, the pressure is on in Pittsburgh. The Penguins came into the year hoping to remain contenders. That door certainly isn’t shut yet. But Rutherford’s resignation and a pedestrian 5-5-1 start have caused increased urgency in the Steel City.

Today, just twelve days after Rutherford departed, the Penguins have filled their GM void. The club announced today that Ron Hextall has been hired as the eleventh general manager in franchise history. Pittsburgh is also bringing on Brian Burke as president of hockey operations.

Hiring a Pennsylvania hockey icon as GM would make sense, except Hextall made a name for himself as a member of Pittsburgh’s biggest rival. Hextall played thirteen seasons in the NHL between the pipes, eleven of them for the Philadelphia Flyers. As a player, Hextall came became the first goalie to ever shoot and score a goal in the regular season. He also was the first goalie to ever score in the playoffs.

He was pretty good when it came to stopping the puck, too, leading the Flyers to two Stanley Cup Finals. Hextall’s best season was his rookie year, 1986-87. Hextall won the Calder Trophy, Vezina Trophy (best goaltender), and Conn Smythe Award that season; the Flyers lost in the Stanley Cup Final to the Edmonton Oilers in seven games.

But Hextall’s Philadelphia legacy didn’t stop on the ice. After retiring, Hextall worked as a scout for the Flyers and helped the LA Kings to the 2012 Stanley Cup as an assistant GM. Eventually, Ron Hextall got his first shot at running an NHL franchise in Philly in May 2014. The Flyers went 165-128-58 (.553 points percentage) in his tenure of just over four seasons. Philadelphia missed the playoffs twice and lost in the first round twice.

However, Hextall’s work in Philly went beyond the win-loss record. When he took over, the Flyers were in salary cap hell with a barren prospect pool. Under Hextall’s watch, Philadelphia gradually shedded their bad contracts. Especially in his early years, Hextall had a knack for winning trades and moving on from bad contracts. Selling high on Kimmo Timonen (two 2nds) and Braydon Coburn (Radko Gudas, a 3rd, and a 1st Hextall traded up to pick Travis Konecny) in 2015 earned more early praise from the fanbase.

Hextall hit not just on high selections like Ivan Provorov (7th in 2015), Joel Farabee (14th in 2018), Travis Sanheim (16th in 2014) and Konecny (24th in 2015), but found diamonds in the rough like Carter Hart (48th in 2016), Oskar Lindblom (138th, 2014), and Phil Myers (undrafted). Hextall brought in half of the players in the Flyers first playoff series clincher in eight years in 2020. Philadelphia (8-3-2) wouldn’t be where they are today, for better or for worse (but mostly for better) without Ron Hextall.

It’s not all sunshine and rainbows in Philly right now, but things aren’t exactly going too bad for the Flyers.

Of course, his tenure wasn’t perfect; Hextall was fired for a reason. Critics said Hextall didn’t do enough to push the Flyers over the edge once his kids started making an impact in the NHL. Some applauded Hextall for admirably determining to stick to his plan and trust the roster he assembled. To others, he was too stubborn to admit his mistakes and held onto head coach Dave Hakstol for too long. After failing to improve the Flyers roster enough in the 2018 offseason, the Flyers fired Hextall that November.

Hextall was a very cautious GM in Philly; he took very few swings in free agency and was very patient when it came to promoting top prospects. It’s track record that is certainly an interesting fit in Pittsburgh. It’s a bit surprising the Penguins hired a GM know for being conservative when all previous signs have pointed to them going all-in on Crosby and Malkin’s final years.

The notoriously aggressive and experienced Burke could be a nice ying to Hextall’s yang. Burke has previously served as GM for the Hartford Whalers (1992-1993), Vancouver Canucks (1998-2004), Anaheim Ducks (2005-2008, where he won his only Stanley Cup), and Toronto Maple Leafs (2008-2013). He was also president of hockey operations for the Calgary Flames from 2013-2018. Most recently, Burke was working as analyst for Sportsnet and wrote a book. Time will tell if these are the right hires to extend Pittsburgh’s reign of terror success, or if these men will simply oversee the beginning of the end.