This time in 2022, the Pittsburgh Penguins were hanging on to their status as a competitive hockey franchise. Sidney Crosby, their franchise center and one of the five best players ever, was 34. Evgeni Malkin, their other franchise center and a top-30-or-so historical talent himself, was 35 and playing out the final days of his contract. Kris Letang, their franchise defenseman and also a top-100 player ever (just ask the experts) was 34, and like Malkin, in the closing weeks of his contract. It was highly uncertain that the three superstars would remain together and, as a matter of probability, even less likely that they would all continue to offer simultaneous elite play. The Penguins blew a 3–1 series lead to lose their first-round series to the New York Rangers, and they seemed poised to finally plunge into the abyss.
But the hockey gods blessed the Penguins, as they have done often over the past 40 years. The team did a good bit of business by re-signing Malkin and Letang to contracts that should carry each through the rest of his career. (They also got lucky, in that both players agreed to pass up free agency.) And then Malkin, Letang, and Crosby all spent another year beating Father Time and being among the best players in the world. Crosby and Malkin have not missed any of the team’s 81 games; Crosby has 91 points and Malkin 83. Letang has had a hellish season away from the ice but still managed 39 points in 63 games from the blue line while frequently controlling games. The Penguins kept their Big Three together for an NHL-record 17th season as teammates, and all of them kept delivering. The team was fortunate and should have made the playoffs for, not coincidentally, the 17th year in a row.
It did not. The Penguins capped a spectacular collapse when they lost at home to the woeful, tanking Chicago Blackhawks on Tuesday night. Pittsburgh would have made the field only by winning their last two games, both against bottom-feeders. But they couldn’t, and the New York Islanders eliminated them by claiming the Eastern Conference’s last playoff spot on Wednesday with a win over the Montreal Canadiens. No team stays good forever in a salary-capped sport, and Pittsburgh’s day was coming eventually. But for it to come this year required an all-time circus of mismanagement that wasted what, for all anyone knows, could be the final elite and healthy seasons for three future Hockey Hall of Famers. To add to the indignity, the man who messed up the team did such a comprehensive job that rebounding during Crosby, Malkin, and Letang’s remaining days in Pittsburgh may be impossible. If you are a Penguins fan (like me), or an appreciator of aging stars, you see this as a crime against hockey. If you are understandably sick of the Penguins, you find it funny. But if you’re anyone at all, it’s a case study in how a front office can detonate an opportunity from within.
The culprit in the ending of the Penguins as a going concern is Ron Hextall, the franchise’s general manager since 2021. Hextall, a former goaltender and failed GM of the Philadelphia Flyers, was tasked with maintaining the Penguins after the team won three Stanley Cups between 2009 and 2017. The Penguins lost in more playoffs than they won, but their consistency was jarring, and a testament to how hard it was not to at least make the playoffs with Crosby, Malkin, and Letang on the roster. In fact, until Hextall’s creation this season, no executive had ever pulled off that particular feat.
Hextall deserves credit for retaining Malkin and Letang last offseason, but those were no-brainer moves. The Penguins have no farm system to speak of, the result of a decade and a half of picking late in the opening rounds of the draft or not picking at all, instead trading future assets for short-term help. The Penguins’ only path, as long as they’ve had their star trio, is to try to win immediately and push tomorrow to … the day after tomorrow. Retaining Malkin and Letang, on longish contracts designed to produce lower salary cap hits for a few years at the start, was part of that plan. The Penguins made one other good signing last offseason to keep winger Rickard Rakell, a do-a-bit-of-everything forward who has 59 points.
Everything else the franchise has done over the past few years might as well have been designed in a lab to undermine those stars. They could teach about it in sports business seminars.
Hextall gave out horrendous contracts in spades. Last summer, he gave a two-year deal worth $3.2 million per year to winger Kasperi Kapanen, whom he then put on waivers in the middle of this season. The prior summer, he’d given a four-year deal with a $2.75 million salary cap hit to Brock McGinn, another winger whom the Penguins put on waivers this season. One player he did not waive was veteran center Jeff Carter, whose contract he extended for two years at a $3.125 million cap hit in the middle of last season. The Penguins’ bottom two lines of forwards became arguably the worst in the league. Kapenen, McGinn, and Carter played 163 minutes together this season and combined to be the NHL’s 124th-best forward line out of 127 in expected goal differential, according to analytics site MoneyPuck. None was the worst forward on the team, though. That was Mikael Granlund, a center Hextall acquired mere weeks ago at the trade deadline for a second-round pick. Granlund, signed at a $5 million cap hit through next year, has given the Penguins one goal in 20 games. Everyone knew it was a bad idea except Hextall, the only person who mattered.
Hextall made an astonishing mess of the league’s 2021 expansion draft that welcomed the Seattle Kraken to the NHL. He did not seem prepared to place winger Jared McCann on the Penguins’ “protected list” of players whom the expansion team could not steal from him, so Hextall traded McCann for a nonentity prospect and a seventh-round draft pick. McCann has 40 goals and 70 points in Seattle this season. (He was briefly a Toronto Maple Leaf before the Kraken swiped him, so the Leafs let him go, too.) The Penguins also lost Brandon Tanev, a productive third- or fourth-line winger who has 16 goals this year in Seattle. Indeed, that’s 56 goals the Penguins let free to the expansion team while protecting the likes of Carter, Kapanen, and the recently traded fourth-liner Teddy Bleueger.
Had that been all, the Penguins may have still been a playoff team this year. But it wasn’t. Hextall made a defenseman swap for the expensive and no longer great Jeff Petry, parting with a player who turned out to be not just a younger and cheaper but better defender, Mike Matheson. The GM didn’t change the Penguins’ goaltending tandem of Tristan Jarry and Casey DeSmith, who have repeatedly let the team down in the spring with a mix of ineffective play and injury. Neither was among the league’s better goalies.
If it all seems multifaceted, that’s the point. No executive could so wholly burn down a team built around a still-excellent Crosby, Malkin, and Letang by merely making bad trades, doling out bad contracts, being too lax about goaltending, or bungling an expansion draft. Hextall had to do all of those things, some of them over multiple years, to get the Penguins to this point. It’s mind-boggling that he remains in his job, though he probably will not for much longer. But that’s just a hunch, and it’s not entirely clear that Fenway Sports Group—the Boston Red Sox and Liverpool F.C. owner that recently bought the Penguins—is even paying close attention to its investment. Hextall isn’t the lone person at fault for the Penguins’ demise. Brian Burke, the team’s hockey operations president whose actual job is a matter of some question, deserves blame, as does two-time Cup-winning head coach Mike Sullivan. The Penguins’ changes to come should probably go deeper than Hextall, but chanting fans should at least get what they want.
Crosby, Malkin, and Letang could defy gravity for yet another year in 2023-24. They’re world-class athletes. But they aren’t getting more runway as they get closer to their 40s. Their front office currently has more than $8 million in cap hits for next year committed to Granlund and Carter, who are practically unplayable, and another $6 million–plus committed to Petry, who is no longer special. The Penguins already spend right up to the salary cap and have limited flexibility to add good players to next year’s team. Crosby, Malkin, and Letang were never going to contend forever. The shock of the Penguins’ decline is that the adversary that finally got them wasn’t time. The call came from inside the house.