Pittsburgh — The Pittsburgh Penguins asked Ron Heckstall and Brian Burke to thread an impossibly thin needle when they were hired in February 2024.
Heckstall, general manager, and Burke, director of hockey operations, were asked to find a way to open the championship window for superstars Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin and Chris Letang without sacrificing the club’s long-term future.
After just over two years that were turbulent at times and produced a huge lack of progress on either front, Hextall and Burke were out of work.
The team fired Heckstall, Burke and 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 ways with the trio came less than 24 hours after the end of an 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,” Chief Commercial Officer Kevin Acklin said at a news conference about the change. “I think everyone can take that into consideration.”
Fenway Sports Group owner John Henry and company president Tom Werner said in a joint statement “The team will benefit from new hockey operations leadership.”
They added “We believe in our core group of players and that the goal of competing 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 firing that he “thankful” to work in like “A passionate sports city.”
Hextall and Burke were hired shortly after the abrupt mid-season 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 friendly deals last summer rather than let them walk in free agency, most of the roster’s decisions around the core of the club backfired.
Pittsburgh struggled to generate much offense out of its top lines and the defense provided little stability outside of Letang and Marcus Peterson. Goaltending also became an issue, as injuries and inconsistent play at position cost the Penguins dearly in the 2024 and 2024 playoffs.
The search for a general manager will begin immediately, as several members of the AHL affiliated club in Wilkes-Barre/Scranton will handle day-to-day operations in the meantime.
“These jobs are not one- or two-person jobs,” said Dave Beston, co-president of Fenway Sports Management and alternate governor for the Penguins. “It’s department-wide, and so what we’re focused on is a machine for hockey operations and something that can build on and improve on what we already have, which is exceptional.”
He will also help longtime Pittsburgh head coach Mike Sullivan through the transition period, a sign that the club has no intention of moving on from Sullivan, who signed a contract extension last fall that will run through the 2026-27 season.
“We think Mike Sullivan is one of the best coaches in the NHL,” Beeston said. “Once a new captain of hockey operations is brought in, he will be responsible for evaluating the coaching staff. But we think Mike is great and all of his staff are great.”
Whoever takes the job will have some tough decisions to make. Pittsburgh has several unwanted contracts for aging players such as quarterback Jeff Carter, forward Mikael Granlund, and defenseman Jeff Petrie, all of whom were brought in during Heckstall’s tenure.
Carter performed well upon his arrival in the spring of 2024 and looked fit at the time his extension was announced in January 2024. However, the 38-year-old has only had 29 points this season despite playing 79 games and falling short of 16. The rating was the third worst of his long career.
Petrie, who turned on defenseman Mike Matheson last summer, has been having problems staying healthy and hasn’t become the offensive threat Pittsburgh imagined he would be. The 35-year-old still has two years to go on a deal that will see him pay $6.25 million.
Granlund, who was acquired at the trade deadline this year from Nashville, has made little impact with the Penguins, tallying one goal and four assists in 21 games. The 31-year-old still has two years to secure a contract that will pay him $5 million per season.
The new general manager must also know what to do in the target. Tristan Jarry will become a two-time all-star as a free agent this summer, but he’s had several health issues and posted a career-worst 2.90 goals against average.
Shortly after the All-Star break, Hextall said he believed there were many teams that could win the Stanley Cup and the Penguins were one of them.
However, Pittsburgh has stumbled along the way, mixing solid wins over teams like Colorado with bewildering losses in the NHL as well. Rock bottom came on Tuesday night at home against Chicago.
Needing only wins over the Blackhawks and Columbus to extend the club’s playoff streak to 17, Pittsburgh instead allowed Chicago to pull away for a 5-2 win and the Penguins were eliminated the following night when the New York Islanders topped Montreal.
chants “Hextal fire!” She appeared briefly late in the third period against the Blackhawks with Pittsburgh trailing by multiple goals.
A little over 72 hours later, Hextall was gone.