The Pittsburgh Penguins asked Ron Hextall and Brian Burke to thread an impossibly thin needle when they were hired in February 2021. Hextall, the general manager, and Burke, the director of hockey operations, were asked to find a way to prop open the championship window for stars Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin, and Kris Letang without sacrificing the club’s long-term future.
After a little over two sometimes turbulent years that produced a significant lack of progress on either front, Hextall and Burke are out of a job. The team fired both, plus assistant general manager Chris Pryor on Friday after the Penguins failed to reach the playoffs for the first time in 17 years.
The decision to part with the trio came less than 24 hours after the end of a wildly uneven season in which Pittsburgh went 40-31-11 and finished ninth in the Eastern Conference to end the longest active postseason streak in major North American professional sports.
“Not everything that happened to the team is their fault,” president of business operations Kevin Acklin said at a news conference about the shakeup. “I think everybody can take that into account.”
Fenway Sports Group owner John Henry — who also owns the Red Sox and Boston Globe Media Partners — and company chairman Tom Werner said in a joint statement that “the team will benefit from new hockey operations leadership.” They added they “believe in our core group of players and the goal of contending for the Stanley Cup has not changed.”
Burke, who came to Pittsburgh after stops in Anaheim, Toronto, and Calgary as well as a stint in broadcasting, tweeted shortly after his dismissal that he was “grateful” to work in such a “passionate sports town.”
Hextall and Burke were hired shortly after the abrupt midseason resignation of former general manager Jim Rutherford, who built a team that won back-to-back Stanley Cup titles in 2016 and 2017.
While Hextall managed to sign Malkin and Letang to team-friendly deals last summer rather than let them walk in free agency, most of the roster decisions to build around the club’s core backfired.
Pittsburgh struggled to generate much offense outside its top two lines and the defense provided little stability outside of Letang and Marcus Pettersson. Goaltending also became an issue, as injuries and inconsistent play at the position cost the Penguins dearly in the 2021 and 2022 playoffs.
The search for a general manager will begin immediately, with several members of the club’s American Hockey League affiliate in Wilkes Barre/Scranton taking over day-to-day operations in the interim. Longtime Penguins coach Mike Sullivan will also assist during the transition, a sign the club has no intention of moving on from a coach that signed a contract extension last fall that will run through the 2026-27 season.
“We think Mike Sullivan’s one of the best coaches in the NHL,” co-head of Fenway Sports Management and Penguins alternate governor Dave Beeston said. “Once we bring in a new hockey operations leader, he or she will be responsible for evaluating the coaching staff. But we think Mike is terrific and his whole staff is terrific.”
Peter Laviolette out in Washington as coaching carousel begins spinning
Peter Laviolette won’t be back as coach of the Washington Capitals, who now have a big decision to make after missing the playoffs for the first time in nearly a decade.
The Capitals parted ways with the Franklin-born Laviolette less than 24 hours after their season ended, a decision general manager Brian MacLellan described as mutual. Laviolette’s contract was set to expire after he coached the past year without an extension. The 58-year-old coached the Capitals for the past three seasons, making the playoffs in each of the first two to extend the organization’s postseason streak to eight years before it ended amid a torrent of injuries and misfortunes. They had 440 man games lost to injury.
Washington went 115-78-27 in the regular season under Laviolette, a one-time coach of the AHL’s Providence Bruins and assistant in Boston who coached Carolina to the Cup in 2006 and also took Philadelphia (2010) and Nashville (2017) to the Final. The Capitals have not won a series since hoisting the Stanley Cup in 2018 under Barry Trotz.
Anaheim won’t bring back coach Eakins, holds top odds in lottery
Dallas Eakins was the Anaheim Ducks’ coach during the worst four-year stretch in franchise history. Although Pat Verbeek knows Eakins is far from solely responsible, the general manager is ready to continue his rebuilding project with a new voice behind the bench.
One day after Anaheim finished in last place in the overall NHL standings at 23-47-12, Verbeek said the Ducks won’t renew Eakins’ contract, which expired at the end of this season. Eakins went 100-147-44 with the Ducks, who promoted him in 2019 after four years as the head coach of their AHL affiliate in San Diego.
The former Edmonton bench boss arrived near the start of Anaheim’s decline from a perennial NHL power in the 2010s, and the Ducks never finished higher than sixth in the Pacific Division during Eakins’ four years in charge. Although Anaheim has a promising young core headlined by playmaking center Trevor Zegras, two-time All-Star Troy Terry, and promising forward Mason McTavish, the Ducks gave up an NHL-worst 338 goals, were last in goal differential (minus-129), and ranked 31st in goals scored (209).
Anaheim has a 25.5 percent chance of winning the top pick in this year’s draft lottery on May 8, with high-scoring forward Connor Bedard the top prize and consensus No. 1 overall prospect. The Ducks are guaranteed to fall no farther than third, meaning they will be able to add either Bedard or one of his fellow elite prospects: University of Michigan star Adam Fantilli, Matvei Michkov, and Leo Carlsson.
Verbeek said he would prefer to have his new coach in place before the draft on June 28.
Also Friday, St. Louis made immediate changes to Craig Berube’s coaching staff after missing the playoffs, firing assistants Craig MacTavish and Mike Van Ryn. MacTavish was hired to replace Jim Montgomery, who left to coach the Bruins.
Devon Levi, Buffalo wins season finale; Columbus No. 2 in top pick race
Jeff Skinner had a goal and two assists, lifting the Buffalo Sabres to a 5-2 win over the Blue Jackets in the season finale for both teams.
Casey Mittelstadt had a goal and an assist in Columbus, Ohio, and Victor Olofsson, Alex Tuch, and Peyton Krebs also scored for Buffalo. Northeastern’s Devon Levi stopped 29 shots for the Sabres, who were eliminated from playoff contention for the 12th straight season, the longest active postseason drought in the NHL.
Johnny Gaudreau and Tyler Angler scored for Columbus (25-48-9), which ended its season in 31st place and will have the second-best odds for the No. 1 pick at 13.5 percent ahead of Chicago (26-49-7, 11.5 percent) and San Jose (22-44-16, 9.5). The Blue Jackets are guaranteed one of the top four picks, and the Blackhawks one of the top five.
Playoff field waiting on one final matchup
After six weeks of hopeful excitement that his New Jersey Devils would face the New York Rangers in the opening round of the playoffs, former Bruins center Erik Haula had a simple, sarcastic take: “Here we are.” And the playoffs are finally here, too. Devils vs. Rangers in another chapter of their bitter Hudson River rivalry is one of the juiciest of the eight first-round matchups, six of which were set on the penultimate day of the regular season. Two more awaited the result of Colorado’s game Friday night at Nashville. The Eastern Conference is set, featuring the NHL-best Bruins against the Florida Panthers and the Tampa Bay Lightning — three-time reigning Eastern Conference champions — against the Toronto Maple Leafs in the Atlantic Division bracket, along with Rangers-Devils and the Carolina Hurricanes against the New York Islanders on the Metropolitan side. In the West, MVP favorite Connor McDavid and the Edmonton Oilers face the Los Angeles Kings, and the Pacific Division champion Vegas Golden Knights go up against the Winnipeg Jets. The defending Stanley Cup champion Avalanche will face the Seattle Kraken if they beat the Predators or the Minnesota Wild if they don’t, which would give the Dallas Stars the Central Division title. The chase for the Cup begins Monday . . . Seattle will be without forward André Burakovsky for the start of the Stanley Cup playoffs after he underwent surgery to address a lower-body injury. Burakovsky has not played since Feb. 7 against the Islanders, Seattle’s first game after the All-Star break, when he was injured on his first shift.