PITTSBURGH — Ron Hextall's relationship with the Pittsburgh Penguins is complicated. His mandate as the team's new general manager is not.
The Penguins hired Hextall on Tuesday to build a team capable of winning the Stanley Cup. Not in five years. Not in three years. This year.
It's a level of pressure Hextall — whose father Bryan Hextall Jr. played for Pittsburgh in the early 1970s and who clashed with Mario Lemieux and the Penguins repeatedly during his lengthy run as the top goaltender for the Philadelphia Flyers — can live with.
“You’ve got players, (Evgeni) Malkin and (Sidney) Crosby and (Kris) Letang, we want to be as good as we can be right now with three of the best players in the world,” Hextall said Tuesday afternoon following a whirlwind courtship that began in earnest last week.
The 56-year-old Hextall replaces Hall of Famer Jim Rutherford, who resigned abruptly two weeks ago following a wildly successful stint in Pittsburgh that included winning back-to-back Stanley Cups in 2016 and 2017. Hextall's father and Rutherford were teammates in Pittsburgh during the younger Hextall's childhood, with Rutherford even loaning Hextall a goalie mask and skates and occasionally playing a little street hockey together.
Filling Rutherford's shoes four decades later won't be easy. Then again, Hextall won't be doing it alone. The Penguins also lured longtime NHL executive Brian Burke out of a cushy gig as a TV analyst to become Pittsburgh's president of hockey operations. It's a role Burke accepted following a nudge from Lemieux.
Burke actually consulted with Lemieux and team president and CEO David Morehouse during the general manager search. Talk eventually turned to Burke's own interest in joining the organization in a role that will report directly to Morehouse. Burke wasn't inclined to say yes. Except it wasn't just anyone asking.
“Like I was happy with my life,” Burke, 65, said. "I liked living in Toronto ... (but) this is Cadillac class here. It’s not a run of the mill team, it’s not run of the mill ownership.”
No, it's not, not with four Stanley Cup appearances and three championships since 2008. Pittsburgh is off to a sluggish 5-5-1 start this season, thanks in part to some goaltending issues and an injury list filled with defencemen like Brian Dumoulin and Marcus Pettersson. Still, Morehouse left little doubt about the franchise's focus, even with Crosby, Malkin and Letang all 33 or older.
“I think (Hextall and Burke) along with coach (Mike) Sullivan are going to take us in a direction we’re used to being taken,” Morehouse said. "Nothing’s changed. We’re the Pittsburgh Penguins and we’re here to win.”
It's a set-up that's a bit foreign for Hextall, at least as an executive. He spent 13 years as one of the league's most intense, successful and volatile goaltenders, winning the Conn Smythe (playoff MVP) and Vezina (goaltending) trophies in 1987 while leading the Flyers to the Stanley Cup finals as a rookie.
His job in Philadelphia required him to clash with the Penguins regularly. He famously attempted to chase down Pittsburgh forward Rob Brown after he took exception to the way Brown celebrated a goal during a loss to the Penguins in the 1989 playoffs. It was one of the rare off nights for Hextall against the Penguins. He went 20-15-3 when facing Lemieux and company and doesn't expect the nature of the relationship between the two clubs to change just because he's on the other side now.
“The Penguins/Flyers' rivalry is a terrific rivalry and it’s going to continue,” Hextall said. “It’s been great. I love rivalries. I love hating the other team.”
That meant for a long time he hated the same players he now oversees. Hextall retired in 1999 and has spent most of the last two decades as an executive. He was an assistant general manager with the Los Angeles Kings when the franchise won the Stanley Cup in 2012 and spent four-plus years as the general manager in Philadelphia before being fired early in the 2018-19 season.
The stops with the Kings and Flyers came during periods when both clubs were rebuilding. That's not the case in Pittsburgh, which remains intent on propping up the championship window for Crosby and company indefinitely. Hextall is looking forward to the challenge, noting he's not a “one-trick pony.”
Burke sees the job in Pittsburgh as a chance to complete some unfinished business. He was general manager in Anaheim when the Ducks were in the 2005 NHL draft lottery. The ping-pong balls, however, bounced Pittsburgh's way, letting the Penguins grab Crosby with the top pick.
“Look at some of the great players I’ve had, I’ve had guys in the Hall of Fame,” Burke said. "I think Sid’s the best player I’ve ever had.”
Maybe, but Pittsburgh has taken a step back since becoming the first franchise this millennium to win consecutive Stanley Cups. The Penguins saw their three-peat bid die in the second round against Washington in 2018 and went quietly in the first round at the hands of the New York Islanders and Montreal Canadiens each of the last two seasons.
Burke opined during a podcast in 2019 that Pittsburgh's run atop the league with Crosby and Malkin was over. While stressing he wasn't backing down from what he said while working in the media, Burke pointed out the franchise has found a way to consistently have success in a salary-cap era designed to level the playing field.
“There’s a whole bunch of teams with extreme salary cap issues who haven’t won a bloody thing,” he said. "At least in Pittsburgh ... when Jimmy Rutherford goes to buy gas, he’s got two rings on.”
Only Rutherford is no longer in the picture. Now it's up to Burke and Hextall to finish the job Rutherford began in the off-season when he started putting together younger, faster pieces around Crosby, Malkin and Letang.
“We will not get outworked," Hextall said. "We will come up with a plan and every day to try and become a better hockey club.”
The clock is ticking.
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Will Graves, The Associated Press