Ron Hextall's Off-Season Moves Paying Dividends for Penguins

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The Penguins are hot right now. They are winners of their last six games and sit at 16-8-5, good for 37 points and fourth in the Metropolitan Division.

The season opened with gloom and doom as the Penguins lost frequently out of the gate due to many Pens players battling Covid-19. Now, as Covid runs rampant across all sports the past two weeks, the Penguins are healthier than most, relatively. They do have longer-term injuries to three of their top forwards: Evgeni Malkin, Bryan Rust, and Jake Guentzel.  However, the team's run-in with Covid appears to be passed them. 

For the Penguins to be playing at this level speaks volumes to the depth they have both upfront and on the blue line. Their biggest problem to this point is backup goaltender Casey DeSmith, and even he has turned his play around over his past three appearances.

McGinn, Heinen worth every penny

General Manager Ron Hextall essentially lost two players to Seattle in the expansion draft. Brandon Tanev and Jared McCann both played large roles in the penalty kill, an area the Penguins were expected to suffer in this season. However, quite the contrary has happened. The Penguins penalty kill is ranked as the premier killing unit in the entire league at 93%. This figure is two points higher than the next closest team in the Carolina Hurricanes at 91%.

Considering Pittsburgh got rid of two important pieces of their penalty killing unit last season, it is no small feat to lead the entire league.  Much of this can be credited to their free agent signings in the offseason. Brock McGinn and Danton Heinen have been magnificent in their depth roles so far this season. Not to mention, the two of them have combined for 16 goals in 28 games.

McGinn was the Penguins' biggest signing of the offseason at four years, $11 million which carries a $2.75 million annual average value. Heinen, a much cheaper and shorter term option, signed a one year, $1.1 million deal.

Neither contract broke the bank and actually filled some holes quite nicely. Where the Penguins' big fish have been lacking in the scoring department, Heinen and McGinn have helped pick up some of the slack.

Rodrigues blossoming into a real scoring threat

There were many questions facing this roster heading into the season. How would the stars perform? What would the goaltending situation look like on Opening Night?

Evan Rodrigues' name certainly didn't factor into many people's minds when answering any outstanding preseason questions. Coming into the season, Rodrigues was just another piece to the Penguins depth. He had been nothing special. That no longer applies.

Rodrigues has been miles beyond what anyone could have guessed he'd be. In short stints with Sidney Crosby last season, "E Rod" looked largely out of place and overmatched. Prior to Crosby's debut this season, Rodrigues had been lighting the lamp at a frantic pace. He's continued to play like a true top-six winger even with Crosby back in the lineup.

With 10 goals and 23 points in 28 games, E Rod is a fantastic foil to Crosby. He has not been shy about keeping the puck and shooting with a purpose as opposed to being passive and feeding Crosby just because he's Sidney freakin' Crosby.  This same attitude E Rod is exhibiting this season is what made guys like Pascal Dupuis and Chris Kunitz successful on Pittsburgh's top line.

The Penguins actually acquired Rodrigues from the Buffalo Sabres during the 2019-20' trade deadline for Dominik Kahun. Following that season, Rodrigues' free agent rights were traded to Toronto when Pittsburgh re-acquired Kasperi Kapanen. The Maple Leafs decided not to tender him a contract and he eventually re-signed with Pittsburgh. He again entered free agency this offseason but Hextall brought him back a few days later on a one-year, $1 million contract.

Originally viewed as just another depth piece, Rodrigues is blossoming into a valuable piece of the puzzle with an extended chance at playing time. The 28-year old may even parlay that into a big pay day in the offseason.

And then there's Jarry...

The best move Hextall made this offseason might be one he didn't make after all.

Everyone from executives to media personalities, and the like, had basically written Tristan Jarry off as the Penguins goaltender. Maybe even as far as him not being an NHL goaltender. Even I had pretty much assumed the Penguins would go a different direction in the crease during the offseason.

Jarry's response? 13-5-4, 1.93 goals against average, .934 save percentage, and three shutouts. Those are among the best numbers of any goaltender in the league.  To this point, Jarry has done everything and more that could be asked of someone who appeared to be one poor start away from watching NHL games on his couch.  Good for Jarry.

The real test, however, will be if the Penguins can make it to the playoffs.  Jarry's play in the postseason tournament is what has been criticized the most.

Everyone knows how bad Jarry was last postseason. The Penguins were the better team for the entirety of the series, but Jarry was bad enough for the New York Islanders to beat the Penguins in five games. It was quite possibly the worst display of goaltending in playoff history and Marc-Andre Fleury had some real playoff meltdowns.

Jarry has single-handedly won the Penguins a handful of games this season. He's been that good. He needs to continue that play as the season drags on. The worst thing that could happen is Jarry's play start to slip as the playoffs approach. No one wants to see another meltdown. The last one was hard enough to watch.

Successful Offseason So Far

All-in-all, Hextall's first offseason on the job seems like a rather successful one. His next one will be the most important as Malkin and Kris Letang are due new contracts.

None of this even takes into account the fact that Hextall traded for Jeff Carter near the deadline last season and also signed 40-year old Brian Boyle to a one-year deal this season.

For the time being, enjoy the Penguins for the season they're having. You never know when things could turn south for the franchise.

Comments

  1. Every trade has been great! Seems two or three of the new players help with the wins every night. Rodrigeuz deserves a big new contract! He has been the most underrated player in the NHL! Just hope the defense holds up like every year! Trying to get by on a second class defense hurts them every year in the playoffs!

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