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(JASON COHN)
(JASON COHN)

Where should the Penguins <br>go from here? </br> Add to ...

There's a tendency, for any organization, to want to make dramatic changes whenever they make an early exit from the season.

That's there in Pittsburgh right now, despite the team's 108-point regular season – one away from winning the Eastern Conference – and despite doing all that without Sidney Crosby for 60 games during the year.

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The unfortunate thing about the way the NHL currently sets out its standings is an inferior team like the Florida Panthers takes that third seed and gets a relatively easy first round matchup while the No. 4 versus No. 5 meeting is turning into a grudge match.

That happened here – and as talented as the Penguins are, many knew the Philadelphia Flyers were the worst possible first round opponent for them.

The postmortem

When your goaltender posts an .834 save percentage in a six game series, he is going to get a lot of the blame – and deservedly so.

Three years after winning the Stanley Cup in dramatic fashion (and being one of the heroes in Game 7 of that series), Marc-Andre Fleury was the goat in this one, even if his defence hardly offered much of a fight in a few of the games.

But since this team won the Cup, Fleury has the second lowest save percentage of any starting goalie in the playoffs, despite still having more postseason wins than any other netminder since the lockout, and confidence is becoming an issue.

With three years remaining on a contract that pays him $5-million a season, Fleury needs to be better for the Penguins to be the Cup contenders many see them as. He could also use some insurance at the backup position, as Brent Johnson had a tough year.

It also didn't help matters much that Paul Martin, one of the team's other $5-million men, was either terrible or hurt throughout the series after logging the second most minutes on the team all year.

Philadelphia is a very difficult team to contain offensively, and the Pens simply didn't have the personnel to do so with a blueline that relied heavily on Kris Letang and Brooks Orpik and a third pairing that rarely played.

The captain

By no means should this read as a criticism of Crosby, who posted an incredible 45 points in the 28 games he played this season.

But his long, long term absence was a difficult one for the team to absorb at times, and the Pens identity or chemistry with him in the lineup was still a work in progress over the past month or two.

Crosby is a commanding presence in the dressing room, and when he was gone for 13 of the last 16 months or so, other players stepped in, filled that void and they won with a bit of an underdog mentality with players like Pascal Dupuis, Jordan Staal and James Neal having career years.

Evgeni Malkin, who always seems to play better without Crosby for some reason, will almost certainly win the Hart Trophy.

Pittsburgh is obviously a better team with him in the lineup than not – and their record showed it – but it's hard not to argue the Flyers likely benefitted from having a forward group that hasn't hardly changed all year.

The Pens had to adjust to life with Crosby again, and there were signs of problems in those ugly late season losses to the Senators and Islanders where they allowed 18 goals in the three games that they weren't quite ready for a team as good as Philadelphia.

The coach

Here's one move the Penguins would be crazy to make. Even without Crosby almost all year, Dan Bylsma had this team playing like one of the best teams in the East, with two top notch special teams.

He won the Jack Adams last spring and is a candidate again this year, but in a market like Pittsburgh, where they're getting used to success again, some people want heads to roll. ("Should they fire Bylsma?" was one of the first questions I was asked in an interview on a local station there last week.)

The coaching staff's performance in Round 1 can certainly be criticized, especially their inability to find solutions on the penalty kill, but Bylsma's accomplished too much in three and a half years to make him walk now.

What's next?

Pittsburgh already has $60-million committed to 18 players for next season, with Matt Niskanen, a backup goalie and two or three depth forwards still to sign.

The only free agent of consequence is Steve Sullivan, who at 37 could simply decide to come back on a bargain contract in what's been an ideal situation for him.

The hard part is doing some more long-range forecasting with this group.

Crosby needs a new contract after next season. So do Staal and Dupuis.

Malkin and Letang come due the year after that.

Then you now have questions in goal potentially with Fleury struggling as much as he did.

One thing that was heavily rumoured during the season is that GM Ray Shero would be looking for a new home for Staal, who showed in this series just how ready he is to be a No. 1 centre somewhere.

The problem now may be he played so well that moving him has been made more difficult. Being deep down the middle is obviously an asset, but with the cap not expected to go up much at all next season, how much can you commit to being so loaded at centre when this team obviously has other needs?

With Martin hurt, for one, they showed how weak they were on the blueline, as Bylsma was reluctant to play his third defence pairing much at all. (One of Philadelphia's key strategies in the series was to try and get Pittsburgh's defence handling the puck in their own end as much as possible so they could wear them down.)

The Pens need more depth there, and some more meanness overall, as one of the reasons they don't matchup well against the Flyers is physical teams simply seem able to get them off their game.

If you want to move one of the centres for help elsewhere, can you really even think about it being anyone other than Staal?

That's where you get into tricky territory.

When these sorts of questions come up, often the reaction from the fan base is "well, just keep them all!" but that isn't always the wisest decision. Staal can command a sizeable raise and who knows what the new collective bargaining agreement does for players like Crosby and Malkin.

You could be looking at paying nearly 40 per cent of your cap hit to those three bodies alone – on a team that's had a tough time in the postseason since winning the Cup in 2009.

One of the constants we're seeing with championship teams of late is a lot of underpaid talent, usually due to having players on entry level contracts. The Pens had that when they won, but they don't now, while teams like the Flyers are loaded with cheap rookies who are contributing.

If Pittsburgh decides to move out a core piece, that should be the type of bodies they're looking for.

They're obviously still contenders now and in the near future; the only question is how best to get better and deal with teams like the Flyers down the road?

And that's going to mean some hard decisions being made, perhaps as early as this July.

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