The press release arrived by e-mail at 1:21 p.m. Wednesday: “The Pittsburgh Penguins will hold their final media availability of the season Thursday, May 15 from 10:00 a.m. to 11:30 a.m. inside the locker room at CONSOL Energy Center.”
These sessions are commonly known around the NHL as break-up day, when teams that fail to make the playoffs or get eliminated before the Stanley Cup final gather in their dressing rooms for a last session with the media before heading into their summers. Usually, the players offer banalities about the disappointing season (the bounces didn’t go our way) with the head coach perhaps a little more pointed, questioning the work ethic for example, but always in general terms rather than naming the perceived culprits.
But this one should be far more interesting than most. This promises to be a real break-up day, with head coach Dan Bylsma almost certainly making his final appearance in front of the Pittsburgh media as Penguins head coach. The same can be said for any number of players save Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin and maybe even general manager Ray Shero. Those are the consequences when you suffer a 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.
Henrik Lundqvist had scarcely smothered the last scoring chance of the Penguins on Tuesday night, propelling the goaltender and the New York Rangers into the Eastern Conference final, than the long knives came out on Twitter. John Buccigross of ESPN tweeted this practically at the final horn: “Source: ‘lots of dissension in the locker room during the playoffs towards him (Blysma). Arguing in meetings, etc. 99.98% he’s gone,’”
By Wednesday afternoon, Rob Rossi of the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review followed up with a devastating report on the newspaper’s website. Rossi’s sources told him Penguins owners Mario Lemieux and Ron Burkle were in the second of two days of meetings and want Bylsma fired. “Ownership believed Bylsma lost the dressing room this season, specifically the support of franchise centers Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin,” the report said.
Shero’s fate was still being debated at that point but a look at the would-be dynasty’s playoff troubles over the past five years does not leave much room for an argument to keep him.
In blowing a 3-1 series lead for the second time in the past four years, a team with Crosby, Malkin, James Neal and Kris Letang could score only three goals on the Rangers in the last three games of the playoff series. A year earlier, the Penguins’ star-powered offence also stalled against the Boston Bruins in a sweep in the conference final.
Some of that is coaching, of course, as Bylsma appeared flummoxed when the Bruins and then the Blue Jackets and Rangers cranked up the hard hockey good teams play in the postseason. Much like he was as head coach of the U.S. men’s team at the Sochi Olympics, when Mike Babcock had the Canadians lock down the speedy American forwards.
But there is plenty of blame to spread around here. While you may or may not believe Crosby’s protests that his one goal and nine points in 13 playoff games were not because he was hiding an injury, the fact is first the Blue Jackets and then the Rangers subjected him to a merciless pounding. So did the Bruins in 2013. But with defenceman Brooks Orpik injured, the Penguins had no one inclined to do anything about it.
More often than not, star players are shut down in the playoffs, which means the difference-makers come from the supporting cast like Bryan Bickell of the Chicago Blackhawks. This hasn’t happened with the Penguins despite Shero’s best efforts.
Shero publicly tied himself to Bylsma shortly after the 2013 sweep at the hands of the Bruins by signing the coach to a two-year contract extension. Then they decided to stick with goaltender Marc-André Fleury. That is why it’s easy to see an angry ownership tossing them both overboard.