The Pittsburgh Penguins have fallen on hard times. Yes, routinely finishing at or near the top of the Eastern Conference can be considered hard times, especially when you’re a hockey team that boasts the talent that the Penguins have.
Oh, and there’s yet another postseason disappointment. The Penguins fell 2-1 to the New York Rangers in Game 7 of the Eastern Conference semi-final on Tuesday, prompting a firestorm of ‘what went wrong?’ and ‘who should take the blame?’ type questioning and "sweeping overhaul" type reports.
So now we wait while decision makers contemplate whether or not bringing back head coach Dan Bylsma and general manager Ray Shero is what’s best for the hockey club. Bylsma appears to have an unenviable early lead in the race to shoulder the brunt of the blame, but there’s the whole issue of what ultimately derailed a Penguins team led by Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin, and it’s on-ice personnel.
Not that Bylsma should be exempt from criticism, he’s made some questionable moves along the way, but his role in the underachieving Penguins' misfortunes is rather overstated.
Bylsma certainly made some baffling decisions. He continued to rely on 35-year old Rob Scuderi, who moves much differently than 29-year old Rob Scuderi who helped the Penguins to a Stanley Cup in 2009. Brian Gibbons was Crosby’s winger at times, and Tanner Glass dressed in a Game 7 to play a few ticks over six minutes. Then you see what Bylsma was given to work with, focusing on the Penguins bottom six and defense, and the results belied a relatively mediocre forecast.
The trade deadline acquisitions of Marcel Goc and Lee Stempniak did not go quite as well as planned. Goc is a solid two-way player, but his role on the Penguins was diminished by a lack of legitimate bottom six talent to skate with. Stempniak was nearly invisible, flubbing a shot at skating with Crosby. Perhaps Shero could have made a run at Ales Hemsky, who was there for the taking at a laughably minimal cost. Two second rounders was good enough for Douglas Murray in 2013, but Ottawa’s offer of a third rounder (2015) and a fifth rounder (2014) was just too steep to compete with?
Crosby and Malkin, playing together or apart, cannot carry a team on their own. The Penguins have learned this the hard way, in one long lesson that began in the days and weeks following their Stanley Cup victory in 2009. Winning championships is hard.
Shero inherited a wealth of young talent upon taking over general manager duties in 2006. For several years he effectively plugged holes on the roster with decent to great pieces, then the Penguins peaked, then they remained competitive, then Shero traded Jordan Staal, then Shero failed to address glaring deficiencies in depth across the roster. Now the Penguins have gone home for the summer and it’s re-tooling time.
Ghosts of 2009 Brooks Orpik, Craig Adams, and Scuderi need to go. Orpik will hit the open market as an unrestricted free agent, while the Penguins may have to explore the buyout avenue with Scuderi and the remaining three years and $10 million and change left on his deal. Olli Maatta was thrust into a situation he was incapable of handling as a 19-year old defenseman. His future is bright, but more help beyond Paul Martin and Kris Letang is required on the back end, especially with Matt Niskanen poised to hit the open market as an unrestricted free-agent.
Then there’s the issue of goaltending.
Marc-Andre Fleury stands as something of a symbol for the current state of the Pittsburgh Penguins. Fleury, like the Penguins, is neither as bad as his most ardent detractors will tell you or as great as his supporters will try to tell you. Fleury was outstanding at times during the Penguins 13-game playoff run, but he wasn’t good enough in games four through seven versus the Rangers, stopping pucks at a below league average rate. He has one year left on his deal, and while he’s not elite, he could be good enough playing behind a more complete hockey club.
The Penguins are a hockey team that’s been buoyed by a core that’s been as good as anybody’s for a few years now. They’re like a perfectly seared steak, pleasing to the eye, and cooked to a perfect medium-rare on the inside. That steak has been plated with wilted lettuce and minute rice, though. There’s just so much more to be desired, and chef Shero might not be the person capable of fixing a proper dish.
The Penguins currently have just over $55 million committed to 14 players on their roster for 2014-15. It’s likely that one of or combination of Fleury, Letang, or James Neal may have to move in order for the club to patch its holes.
While an offseason approach that limits just Crosby and Malkin as untouchables should be in order, I’m not convinced Bylsma is as much a part of the problem as he’s been made out to be. Whether it’s Shero as GM, or someone else, giving Bylsma another chance with all that top end talent and a functional bottom six and some NHL caliber defenseman might net a favorable result sooner than a cleaning house approach will.