Change is coming to the Penguins, but how much?

UNIONDALE, N.Y. — A few days before the opening of the Stanley Cup playoffs, Pittsburgh Penguins general manager Ron Hextall acknowledged the reality looming in the upcoming offseason.

There is an expansion draft, likely a flat salary cap and some of his team’s top players are entering the final year of contracts.

The change was going to happen no matter what the Penguins accomplished in the postseason.

But to what degree?

“The playoffs are going to dictate,” Hextall said by telephone May 14. “The expansion draft, we have a certain amount in our control there. But a certain amount is out of our control. We’ll figure those things out. We’ve obviously dabbled in those things. We’ll nail them down as we go along here.

“But right now, the focus is on the playoffs and how we can be successful.”

Less than two weeks later, the Penguins were not successful.

Claiming the division and only winning two games in the first round is nothing close to successful.

And frankly, these Penguins, who haven’t advanced past the second round since winning the Stanley Cup in 2017, haven’t been in the same time zone as “successful” for a few years now.

The vast majority of the roster the Penguins had at their disposal for their season-ending 5-3 loss to the New York Islanders on Wednesday at Nassau Veterans Memorial Coliseum was compiled by former Penguins general manager Jim Rutherford. Only forward Jeff Carter, defenseman Mark Friedman and director of player personnel Chris Pryor joined the organization after Hextall and president of hockey operations Brian Burke were hired Feb. 9.

Given that they were joining the team midway through the season — a season being orchestrated under the extraordinary circumstances of a pandemic — it was difficult to truly craft this team to their liking. In all reality, they were primarily custodians for the course Rutherford had plotted before he suddenly resigned Jan. 27.

Now? Hextall and Burke are free to draw up a new map.

How that manifests itself is still a matter of speculation. The Penguins aren’t exactly in need of a rebuild. And their most pressing would-be unrestricted free agent this upcoming offseason is second-pairing defenseman Cody Ceci.

But Hextall and Burke didn’t join the Penguins just to maintain what Rutherford left them, especially after a third consecutive postseason without a single series win.

With the NHL expected to have a flat salary cap figure of $81.5 million for next season (if not more seasons) because of the pandemic crippling league revenues, the Penguins, like a lot of teams, will be scrambling to cut some salary in order to remain cap compliant.

The expansion draft for the Seattle Kraken franchise will aid in that as the Penguins hypothetically could entice Kraken management into taking a less-than-desirable contract such as Marcus Pettersson’s ($4,025,175, per Cap Friendly) or Jason Zucker’s ($5.5 million) by offering to throw in a draft pick the same way they got the Vegas Golden Knights to draft goaltender Marc-Andre Fleury in 2017 by giving them a 2020 second-rounder.

But change won’t be limited to a single player being swiped by an expansion team.

What about the core? Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin and Kris Letang are one year older and one year further removed from their most recent Stanley Cup title. Additionally, Malkin and Letang will be entering the final year of their contracts.

In the aftermath of Wednesday’s loss, Crosby made his thoughts known on the subject.

“Those guys want to win,” the Penguins captain said of Malkin and Letang. “We’ve been together for a long time. We’ve seen how much they care and their commitment. Don’t ever question that. There’s so many parts, and it is a business. So, that’s up to other people.

“As far as what I can see and how I feel, there’s zero doubt in my mind that the group that we have is a really good group.”

It’s fair to be curious about those who direct this group, as well.

Coach Mike Sullivan signed a four-year contract extension in the 2019 offseason that is scheduled to keep him behind the Penguins’ bench until 2023. So it’s unlikely the Penguins, whose revenues have been hindered over the past 15 months, are all that eager to fire Sullivan and keep him on the payroll until he finds a new job or his contract expires.

Beyond that, Hextall and Burke have each expressed admiration for Sullivan and staff in how the team’s day-to-day operations are executed.

Still, three consecutive postseasons without a series win is hard to overlook.

Hextall and Burke aren’t going to overlook much this offseason. Much like Rutherford in 2014, they weren’t brought in to maintain the status quo, particularly after a string of shortcomings in the postseason.


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