The theatre of the absurd seems to have settled in for a run in Pittsburgh in the wake of the Penguins’ latest NHL playoff failure.
In a press conference attended only by Penguins president and chief executive officer David Morehouse, with owners Mario Lemieux and Ron Burkle both absent, it was announced general manager Ray Shero was fired. However, head coach Dan Bylsma and his staff must twist in the wind a little longer, as Morehouse said they were not fired, that their fates will be determined by whoever is hired as GM.
Bylsma was expected to be the first one fired, as news reports indicated Lemieux and Burkle both wanted him gone. Also, NHL teams cleaning house commonly fire both the GM and the coaches to clear the way for the new general manager to start fresh. But Morehouse rejected the notion this has “an element of weirdness,” in the words of one questioner.
“That’s correct, we have not fired Dan Bylsma,” Morehouse said. “I don’t think there’s an element of weirdness. What we’re trying to do is do it systematically, leave it to the new general manager.
“It’s not a complete rebuild. This is a team that has had a level of success. What we’re trying to do is get from good to great. We don’t need to come in and clean complete house right away.”
Assistant GM Jason Botterill was appointed interim general manager to steer the Penguins through the NHL draft in late June. He will also be a candidate to replace Shero permanently, Morehouse said. The search for a new GM “has already begun,” Morehouse said.
Presumably, Tom Fitzgerald, the assistant to the general manager, will also be a candidate. He, too, remains in his current position, at least through the draft. Other candidates are Pat Brisson, the agent for Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin. It is not known if Brisson wants the job but he has been a powerful voice in the organization because of his ties to the Penguins’ two superstars.
There is a group of recently deposed GMs that will provide some candidates, such as former Washington Capitals GM George McPhee and perhaps ex-Carolina Hurricanes boss Jim Rutherford. Shero instantly becomes a candidate for the Capitals.
“We have a large group of people in mind and we think we will have a larger group now that we have an opening,” Morehouse said. “We don’t have anyone in particular in mind other than Jason Botterill.”
Shero, 51, was hired May 25, 2006 and had the Penguins in the Stanley Cup final in 2008. They won the Cup the following year and with young stars like Crosby, Malkin, Kris Letang, Marc-Andre Fleury, the Penguins were supposed to be the first dynasty of the post-salary-cap era.
But it never happened, as Fleury became known for his playoff flops in goal and the rest of the team too often performed well below expectations. The final straw came in this year’s playoffs when the Penguins coughed up a 3-1 series lead against the New York Rangers to lose the second-round best-of-seven series in the seventh game in front of their fans at the Consol Energy Center.
It was the second time in four years the Penguins blew a 3-1 series lead in the playoffs. It was also the team’s fifth consecutive playoff elimination at the hands of a lower-seeded opponent since winning what was supposed to be the first of many Stanley Cups in 2009.
As soon as Game 7 ended, reports emerged that Bylsma had lost the support of the players, in particular the Penguins’ two superstars, Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin. There were claims the players grew disenchanted with the length of Bylsma’s practices and his approach.
Lemieux and Burkle met for two days to discuss the fate of Shero and Bylsma and the future direction of the team. The Pittsburgh Tribune-Review reported both owners wanted to fire Bylsma while they were split on Shero with Lemieux leaning towards keeping the GM.
However, the unhappiness of the Pittsburgh fans, who were buying fewer tickets, and the fact the Penguins never became the post-salary-cap dynasty everyone expected sealed Shero’s fate, along with his spotty drafting record.
The odd part, of course, is that Bylsma was spared for now. Morehouse said the new GM is expected to conduct a review of the entire hockey operation, including the coaches, and then make a decision on their fate.