The customary bellowing for scalps is in full roar now that the Pittsburgh Penguins managed the unthinkable, getting swept – swept, for crying in a sink – by the Boston Bruins.
Fire head coach Dan Bylsma and blow up the roster. So it goes in an age when everyone in the media, both conventional and social, tries to yell the loudest in hopes of being heard.
However, given that the Penguins have now come apart in the playoffs every year since winning the Stanley Cup in 2009, which includes consecutive first-round exits in 2011 and 2012 plus this year’s embarrassment in the Eastern Conference final, some big decisions lie ahead. Bylsma is one of them, the future of goaltender Marc-André Fleury is another, and the really big one may have to be dealt with sooner rather than later even if they both have one year left on their contracts: Can the Penguins keep both Evgeni Malkin and Kris Letang and stay under the NHL’s salary cap?
But there is still no reason to pull this team apart. It is too deep in talent and its best players are still young. Sidney Crosby is 25, Malkin and Letang are both 26.
They are all young enough to learn how to adapt to a league where pure skill no longer wins, where a two-way game and a certain amount of muscle are needed.
However, there could still be major changes even if Penguins general manager Ray Shero, who is not an impulsive man, doesn’t want to make them. Right now he has only $7.8-million (all currency U.S.) in room under next season’s $64.3-million salary cap with 10 players becoming restricted or unrestricted free agents in July.
The lineup that was so carefully crafted by Shero at the trade deadline with an eye to fighting the Bruins for the right to come out of the NHL’s Eastern Conference proved to be colder than a hotel-room iron when the unforgiving Bruins set upon it. Most of the supporting cast brought in – forwards Jarome Iginla, Brenden Morrow and Jussi Jokinen and defenceman Douglas Murray – were awful in the conference final. All of them except Jokinen will become unrestricted free agents, so Iginla may be the only one asked to return.
But the real fault lies with the Penguins’ stars. Crosby, Malkin, James Neal, Letang and Fleury let their team down. None of Crosby, Malkin, Neal and Letang could break free of the Bruins’ checking often enough to get the best offence in the NHL moving, and when they did, no one could put the puck behind Bruins goaltender Tuukka Rask.
Fleury was not a factor against the Bruins, but that is because he had yet another playoff meltdown in the first round and had to be bailed out by Tomas Vokoun. Ever since he made that spectacular set of saves in the final seconds of Game 7 in 2009 to save a Stanley Cup win against the Detroit Red Wings, Fleury has been maddeningly inconsistent in the playoffs. It’s why Shero traded for Vokoun a year ago.
Fleury’s future with the team has to be decided. But Roberto Luongo and his contract are about the only alternative outside a major trade, so if Shero decides Fleury can be salvaged as a No. 1 goalie, the attempt will probably be made.
The players who collectively scored more goals in the regular season than just about anyone else simply would not stick to their game plan enough. Too often when they were turned back by the Bruins, the stars tried to stickhandle their way to the scoring areas, making it easier for the Bruins to employ their defensive system of not allowing second or third chances or any bodies to get near the front of the net. For all the shooting the Penguins did in the series, there were only a handful of chances on rebounds.
Crosby, Malkin, Neal, Pascal Dupuis, Chris Kunitz and others are to blame, of course, but Bylsma bears responsibility as well. He could not get his players to be patient and stick with the game plan. He did win that Cup in 2009, but Bylsma also presided over all those playoff disasters.
There is one year left on Bylsma’s contract, and Shero recently declared full support for the coach. The players love Bylsma, too, but the question is: What will Mario Lemieux insist on from Shero? Judging by the TV shots of him during this debacle, Lemieux is one unhappy celebrity owner.