When we first heard “Fi-re Hex-tall” chants from Pittsburgh Penguins fans at PPG Paints Arena during a 7-2 beatdown from the Edmonton Oilers on Feb. 24, they really resonated.
As general manager of the Penguins, Ron Hextall has done a job that doesn’t escape criticism. His predecessors – Craig Patrick, Ray Shero and Jim Rutherford – all took varying degrees of heat in the years leading up to their departure.
But it’s not like that. Not that publicly with that much venom from disgruntled fans. After all, each of those guys built some cache with the fan base. All three of them won at least one Stanley Cup during their time in that job.
Hextall is gone. He has been on the job for almost two years. And worst of all, he was the public’s number one enemy as a Flyers goalie during his playing days. Hextall is certainly a worthy target.
He is also an easy one.
That’s why I rolled my eyes when the “Fi-re Hex-tall” chants resurfaced on Tuesday during the Pens’ season-changing 5-2 loss to the woeful Chicago Blackhawks. A loss that seemed to seal the team’s fate of missing the playoffs for the first time since 2006. The result was obtained on Wednesday when the New York Islanders defeated the Montreal Canadiens 4-2.
Come, fellow countrymen. That’s low-hanging fruit.
Yes I understand. We all understand. Hextall has done a poor job as general manager. Hopefully, he will be fired by Friday morning.
Some of his moves are head-scratching and the worst are borderline sabotage. Moves like acquiring Mikael Granlund from the Nashville Predators as the team’s “big” trade deadline acquisition. He has produced one goal and four assists in 20 games since arriving in Pittsburgh.
• You mad, bro?: The Penguins have been eliminated from playoff contention. And the fans are furious as they should be
• Steelers meet BYU quarterback Jaren Hall, 2 others, release linebacker Jamir Jones
• Whether swinging a bat or a sword, Pirates DH Ji-Man Choi is happy to make MLB history
Granlund also deserves some flack. So is Hextall’s “boss,” Brian Burke. What exactly is he doing, again?
So did Dmitry Kulikov, and Jan Rutta and Jeff Petry — players acquired from the beginning of the season who were too ineffective, and often injured, to help the cause.
So is Jeff Carter because he didn’t win any Stanley Cups here and faded badly in 2022-23. So is Kasperi Kapanen, and he hasn’t played in Pittsburgh since Feb. 23.
Casey DeSmith and Tristan Jarry are the same because they are the goalies, and goalies are always stoned in the town square after every loss.
All those years deserved the boos that came out of the stands Tuesday at PPG Paints Arena from fans who sensed that the 16-year playoff streak was coming to an end. And every one of those boos, for every one of those reasons, was justified.
Don’t just stop there. You can serve all those candidates as sacrificial goats and lambs. But don’t create any sacred cows.
Mike Sullivan can easily be called the most successful head coach in Penguins history. But he continues to coach this team with the same speed-based, “attack every time, all the time mentality” that won two Stanley Cups for the franchise in 2016-17 — but has won just one playoff series since. He was too loyal to the veterans and completely distrustful of the young players. His commitment and consistency now come across as stubbornness and resistance to change.
Most NHL coaches are not allowed to go five straight years without winning in the playoff round. Continue or not, Sullivan deserves some of the blame for how this season has gone down, especially given how many leads the Penguins have blown and how many times they’ve lost to clubs worse than them.
Team captain Sidney Crosby had to shoulder some of the burden as well. In terms of health and stats, this is Crosby’s best year since 2018-19. Every other Penguin deserves criticism before Crosby.
But Crosby is scoreless in eight of nine games down the stretch and has just four goals since March 12, when the team needs the most points. In 23 minutes of ice time against Chicago in the season-defining game, Crosby went scoreless and went minus-2. His shooting percentage of 13% is the lowest he has posted since 2017-18.
Much like Crosby, Evgeni Malkin had his healthiest, most effective season since 2017-18. His 27 goals and 83 points are high marks over the past five years.
Similar to Crosby, however, Malkin went from March 16 to April 6 scoring just one goal. He is a minus-11 on the year, the lowest number he has posted since 2018-19.
Kris Letang’s determination and dedication to bounce back after another stroke was an inspiration. So is his usual boundless energy and willingness to soak up ice time on what is essentially a barren blue line.
However, as the team’s top offensive defenseman, one goal and five assists since March 16 has not been enough. His minus-13 is the second time Letang has been in the red since the start of the 2014-15 season. He was a plus-20 a year ago.
Jason Zucker has received a lot of praise for the first three quarters of his season, but he managed just two points in April and just three goals since March 14. Bryan Rust posted his fourth straight 20-goal season but only scored once in March.
Each of the Penguins has blood on their hands when it comes to how and why this season died without the playoffs, and that makes the autopsy simple enough.
We shouldn’t try to make it easier than that because it’s more convenient and less emotionally conflicting because we don’t want to blame the Stanley Cup heroes of years past.
Don’t just call the goalies out of habit, or the interloping general manager you’re ready to hate from the moment he takes the job, or the new players you’ve barely met.
Nobody wore a cape this season in Pittsburgh. At least not often enough to capture a wild-card spot that no team in the Eastern Conference seems to want.
Tim Benz is a Tribune-Review staff writer. You can contact Tim at firstname.lastname@example.org or via Twitter. All tweets can be reposted. All emails are subject to publication unless otherwise specified.