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Hextall Discusses the State of the Team

Here are the biggest takeaways from the Penguins general manager's season-ending media availability

by Michelle Crechiolo @PensInsideScoop / Penguins Team Reporter

Penguins general manager Ron Hextall felt there were a lot of positives to take out of the 2020-21 season despite the disappointing finish, and no sweeping changes are planned moving forward.

"Liked a lot of the things from our team this year," Hextall said on Wednesday. "Our resiliency through a lot of injuries, our guys battled through. There were times I know a lot of people had us had us dead to rights because of our lineup, but we found a way to win.

"There's a special drive to this group and chemistry that we like. We'll do everything we can to try to get better this summer at every position, and we'll see what comes our way. But our goal next year is to come back and make the playoffs and hopefully go on a run."

Hextall has earned a reputation for being a patient, analytical builder who keeps an eye on the future while looking to become the best team possible in the present. That was evident during his season-ending media availability on June 2 after the Penguins got eliminated by the New York Islanders in six games during their Round 1 matchup. 

Here are more of the biggest takeaways…

- Hextall praised the coaching staff for the job they did

- The core of Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin and Kris Letang will remain intact

- He believes that Tristan Jarry will come back better next year

- Management would like to add some size and toughness, but are ultimately comfortable with the team as is

Video: Hextall speaks to the media at the end of the season.

HEXTALL PRAISES COACHING STAFF

Hextall said they were "very pleased" with the job the coaching staff did, particularly through all of the adversity they faced.

Mike Sullivan is one of the leading contenders for the Jack Adams Award as the league's best coach after he and first-year assistants Todd Reirden and Mike Vellucci steered the club through 273 man-games lost during the regular season while simultaneously dealing with the NHL's COVID-19 protocols.

At one point, the Penguins were without Evgeni Malkin, Kasperi Kapanen, Jason Zucker, Brandon Tanev and Teddy Blueger during the month of March, yet the team steadily climbed the standings and ultimately won the East Division - a point Hextall repeatedly came back to.

"Having five of your top-nine forwards out and continuing to find ways to win is hats off to the coaches and certainly the players," Hextall said. "It was a tough year. I'd be remiss if I didn't mention the challenges with COVID. Our entire staff, not just the players and the coaches, did a terrific job."

THE CORE WILL BE BACK

Hextall said that he and Sullivan are on the same page when it comes to the identity of this team moving forward. That starts with keeping the core of Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin and Kris Letang intact for next season.

"We see a future with this core," Hextall said. "These guys have been here a long time. We had a good year. Certainly didn't give me pause to think about what we should do with this core. I expect to have these guys back next year, for sure."

Malkin, who turns 35 on July 31, and Letang, who turned 34 on April 25, each have one year remaining on their current deals. Hextall said discussions about their respective futures are currently ongoing right now within their staff, and they prefer to keep those internal. For now, they are looking forward to that trio helping them capture another Stanley Cup in 2021-22.

"We've got some pretty special players that are obviously not in their 20s anymore, but they're still playing at a high level," Hextall said. "So we'll be in win-now mode, trying to balance giving away futures, obviously, but also trying to find ways to try to make our team a little bit better here and there."

READ - Letang: "Me, Geno and Sid Want to Finish as Penguins"

TEAM IDENTITY

Hextall lauded former Penguins general manager Jim Rutherford for constructing the team that he and president of hockey operations Brian Burke took over.

"Burkie and I inherited a very good team with obviously some top players, but a lot of really good support players," Hextall said.

And with the addition of veteran leader Jeff Carter at the trade deadline making them an even deeper team, Hextall said he's excited about how the group looks.

"We got a hardworking team. We got a skilled team. We got a fast team," Hextall said.

When it comes to how the team can improve, Hextall said when he assesses both the regular and postseason, he didn't feel like there were a lot of shortcomings - especially after Carter joined the group. 

He felt they created a lot, didn't give up a ton and if they'd had a bit more puck luck - especially in Game 5 - the result could have been totally different.

"Quite frankly, I think as a lot of people do, I felt like we deserved to win the first round of the playoffs," Hextall said. "I don't look at it like there was a whole lot of holes in our game in the First Round there where we say, 'okay, we need to plug this.'

"For example, when Geno and Teddy (Blueger) were out there, as good a job as Jared McCann did in the middle, we lost a winger in Jared McCann. So to bring Jeff in kind of filled that hole that we felt like we had."

Hextall did say he feels that the most important attribute for a team to have success in playoffs is the willingness to play through the hard stuff, like hooks and holds and interference and hits. 

"There's going to be teams that want to play physical and run you because they feel like that's the only way they can beat you, and you got to have players that are willing to play through that," Hextall said. "And quite honestly, I think we showed in the first round that we've got a lot of players that are willing to do that." 

But Hextall said if they can add a little bit of size and toughness to help with that, they will - but it has to be the right price.

"It would be nice, but there's not a lot out there," Hextall said. "We'll look at what's out there and we'll make adjustments, but if we go into the next season with this group, we're comfortable."

Hextall did acknowledge that they will most likely part ways with one good player from the team, as he doesn't anticipate giving up valuable assets to Seattle so that they won't select someone off the roster during the Expansion Draft, set for July 21.

CONFIDENCE IN JARRY

Hextall said that overall, Tristan Jarry did a good job in his first season as the Penguins' starter.

"From the time that Burkie and I came in, in mid-February there through the end of the year, we had very good goaltending from both (him and Casey DeSmith)," Hextall said. "Obviously saw what happened in Game 5, unfortunate error there, and then Game 6 wasn't the best. But I think we wouldn't have been where we were without Tristan, and we all have to remember, Tristan is a young player."

READ - Experience is the Best Teacher for Jarry

As a former NHL goaltender himself, Hextall knows better than anyone the growth process that Jarry is going through right now. And the GM said he is confident that his 26-year-old goalie will heed the lessons he took from this season.

"He is going to learn from this, and he's going to come back better in September," Hextall said. "We all learn lessons in life. And if you're going to be a goaltender in this league for a long time, you're going to have your ups and downs as pretty much every guy does, and you learn from it and get better."

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