It’s been nearly five-and-one-quarter years since Dan Bylsma was hired as head coach of the Pittsburgh Penguins, replacing Michel Therrien.
The 2008-09 coaching change lit a fire under Sidney Crosby and the club, and when the 21-year-old captain became the youngest to ever raise the Stanley Cup that June, we all believed it wouldn’t be the last time the Penguins would claim the prize under Bylsma.
Since that spring, the Pens have lost more playoff series than they’ve won. They’ve also blown 3-1 series leads in two of the last four post-seasons.
For the NHL’s marquee franchise, that simply isn’t good enough. Add 14 unrestricted free agents to the mix, and changes are in order. Any number of things could happen in the Penguins’ off-season, but here are four to expect.
By all accounts, Bylsma will take the fall for another post-season flameout, which is unfortunate. You can only play the hand you’re dealt, and he’s been handed an uneven one two years in a row. Bylsma benched Marc-Andre Fleury in 2013, and switching to Tomas Vokoun got the Penguins to the Eastern Conference final. This year, he tinkered with lines to try and get Crosby going, but it just didn’t happen.
Sports is a results business, and a fickle one. The more interesting case will be if general manager Ray Shero survives this disaster. The Penguins were exposed this postseason by injury, most notably the ones suffered by forward Pascal Dupuis and defenceman Brooks Orpik, and their organizational depth wasn’t strong enough to overcome those ailments.
Plus, Shero’s decision to deal for rental forward Lee Stempniak did not lead to playoff success, as he had just three points in 13 playoff games and finished on Pittsburgh’s third line. That’s on the GM.
● A blockbuster
Some might recall my speculation a year ago that a ransom could be fetched for Kris Letang or Evgeni Malkin, and the more interesting case now could be Letang. I know it’s not considered wise to part with a 27-year-old former Norris Trophy finalist, and Letang does carry a hefty price tag ($7.25 million cap hit), but his uneven play is representative of Pittsburgh’s post-season.
Letang was minus-2 in the Pens’ final three games. In four games this post-season he posted sub-46-per-cent Corsi-for percentages. For a player who is on the ice a lot, and on a team that makes its living playing offence, that’s not good.
The Penguins might regret trading Jordan Staal two summers ago. Remember, Ryan Kesler’s name was floated at the trade deadline as a potential third-line centre. The Pens were stunningly thin offensively when Bylsma put Crosby and Malkin together against the Rangers, and you get the sense a Kesler-type centre, who can move up to the Pens’ second line and score if Malkin plays with Crosby, would offer Pittsburgh some scoring depth.
Perhaps a blockbuster — with Letang and Kesler as the centrepieces — could be order at the draft next month in Philadelphia.
● Plenty of walking
With free agency and a salary cap, teams are constantly forced to reshuffle the deck. Forward Jussi Jokinen is a free agent who only helped his stock playing with Malkin and James Neal. The Penguins will likely need to lock-in UFA forward Brian Gibbons, too, who was an excellent penalty-killer and part-time top-line forward.
Still, there are a ton of questions here. Orpik has done plenty of good in his 10-plus seasons in Pittsburgh but had a tough few months this year. An undisclosed injury — which cost him eight-plus playoff games — did nothing to help. The Penguins must get more responsible and younger on their blue line, and they’ll likely watch Matt Niskanen depart for big bucks in free agency.
The Wilkes-Barre/Scranton Penguins are in the Calder Cup’s Eastern Conference semifinals, and there are AHL defensive prospects who are ready to make the leap if given the opportunity. It may be time to give the kids a look.
● A change in net
The Penguins lost to the New York Rangers in seven games in the Metropolitan Division final because their goaltending was inferior to New York’s.
That’s a simple statement but also a true one. After pitching consecutive shutouts in games 2 and 3, Marc-Andre Fleury allowed questionable goals in each of the Penguins’ final four — and surrendered bad goals in 10 of Pittsburgh’s other 11 games this post-season. Bylsma stood up for Fleury this playoff year, repeatedly saying, “I’ve won a lot of hockey games with Marc-Andre Fleury as my goaltender.”
If you can live with a goalie with a .915 save percentage and 2.40 goals-against average, then Fleury is your guy. But if you expect to be a Stanley Cup team, those numbers aren’t good enough. Of the Eastern Conference’s final four, Fleury’s numbers were the worst of any netminder.
Is backup Jeff Zatkoff the answer? Who knows? But, at 26, he’s no spring chicken either. Fleury’s been tending goal in Pittsburgh for 10 seasons now, but his inability to come up big in clinching games is startling, and it may be time for him to get pushed.