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December 22, 2014
I Got Your Change Right Here
by Michael Paul Dell, Editor-in-Chief
The Pittsburgh Penguins needed one point against the Buffalo Sabres in the season finale to secure a playoff spot. Captain Mario Lemieux, who had missed the previous 21 games due to chronic back pain, went from bed rest to the Civic Arena ice, scoring a goal and an assist to force overtime. Pittsburgh was five minutes away from a second consecutive playoff berth, a miraculous achievement for a franchise that had missed the postseason six consecutive years in an era when 16 of 21 teams made the tournament. Five lousy minutes. And it all ended quicker than an Uwe Krupp slap shot.
May 13, 2014.
The Pittsburgh Penguins needed a win in Game Seven against the New York Rangers to remain in the playoffs. Captain Sidney Crosby, who had missed most of the postseason with a chronic bad attitude, went from awful to terrible, accomplishing absolutely nothing in a dismal 2-1 defeat. And for the fifth consecutive year, Pittsburgh's season ended in a humiliating collapse against a lower seed.
But take heart, Penguins fans. Think of this most recent shameful display as the Crosby generation's Uwe Krupp moment. That Krupp goal enabled the team to draft Jaromir Jagr and signaled the need for meaningful change, leading to two Stanley Cups. This Rangers debacle will be similar medicine, purging the system to save the patient.
Beating the Rangers would have been the worst possible fate. A return trip to the Wales Conference Finals would have convinced some the team was still close to winning a Cup, no doubt saving Dan Bylsma's job and preventing the necessary roster overhaul. Now there can be no mistake. This is a bad hockey team. Really, really bad. Like Billy Tibbetts bad.
Sidney Crosby: I still think he was hurt. I think he entered the postseason injured, recovered a bit, and then faded down the stretch due to Marc Staal and the Rangers beating him like a pinata. Crosby dominated Games Two and Three but never looked the same after Staal elbowed him in Game Four. Everyone plays through pain in the playoffs, and Crosby knows he still has to produce. But he was hurt. He had to be. I refuse to believe he suddenly forgot how to play hockey.
Injured or not, Crosby had a brutal postseason. That "Best Player in the World" designation is officially open for debate. He was that bad. Yes, the team failed to protect him and should be ashamed at its lack of response to New York's repeated assaults. But Crosby continues to wallow in frustration and becomes too easily distracted when not scoring. Time to put away childish things.
Evgeni Malkin: Malkin was the only Penguin to show up for Game Five against the Rangers, and he showed flashes of brilliance in Games Six and Seven. But his actual production lags far behind his prodigious talent. Still, Malkin wasn't the reason the team lost. He tried. And that may not sound like much, but trying is seldom a given with Malkin.
Having two players making $8.7 million simply doesn't work in the salary cap era. The deepest team wins. Tough to acquire depth when two guys devour $17.4 million of a $64-million cap. Malkin has a full no-movement clause. He isn't going anywhere unless he asks out. Forget it.
Brandon Sutter: He was the team's best center in the playoffs. If the Pens had this Sutter last season, they may have beaten the Bruins. Without question, Sutter's emergence as a legitimate third-line pivot and a proven playoff performer was the best thing to come from this lost season.
Sutter is a restricted free agent who earned $2 million. Restricted free agents rarely leave without engineering a trade. I imagine the Penguins will try and re-sign him to a short-term deal for around $3 million. Good luck with that.
Marcel Goc: Goc was a sneaky good addition and logged responsible minutes. Bylsma was able to use Crosby and Malkin together because he knew he had a reliable checking center to anchor the third line. Unfortunately, Goc doesn't exactly inspire fear in the opposition. This team needs more grit and toughness in the bottom six.
Joe Vitale: He isn't Max Talbot. Vitales grow on trees in the AHL. But he only makes $550,000. His cheap price tag could bring him back. Someone has to log those regular-season minutes against Winnipeg.
Chris Kunitz: Kunitz is what he is, namely a complementary winger on a good scoring line. Even though his shooting touch abandoned him in the playoffs, Kunitz remains one of the few constants when it comes to finishing checks and playing a simple, north-south game. He was also the only Penguin to come to Crosby's aid when things got chippy.
Pascal Dupuis: Losing Dupuis proved devastating. While he may not be the most gifted scorer, Dupuis always plays the right way. The team couldn't overcome his absence, which probably says more about this dreadful roster than it does Dupuis.
James Neal: If Neal is still a Penguin after the draft, the team isn't serious about changing the culture of arrogance and entitlement that has come to define the franchise. Neal must go. He has the best release in hockey and can be magic with Malkin, but his lack of discipline and his questionable attitude exemplify everything wrong with the club. Neal has scored a goal in just seven of his 38 career postseason games, so he won't be missed come playoff time. He's locked in at $5 million for the next four years, which is actually a good contract for a young sniper. There should be no shortage of interested parties.
Jussi Jokinen: Jokinen gave Pittsburgh everything he had, scoring 21 goals and 57 points in the regular season and then chasing it with a team-high seven playoff goals. Numbers like that will get him more on the open market than the Penguins can afford. If he's willing to take less money to stay, the club should welcome him with open arms. But it's not going to happen.
Beau Bennett: People in Pittsburgh seem to think he's a keeper. He isn't. He's just the newest flavor of Erik Christensen, Mark Letestu, and Dustin Jeffrey. Trade him now before others figure it out. Bennett is destined to be a top six forward in Florida or Buffalo or some other place that has no chance of winning anything ever. No one is hoisting a Stanley Cup with Bennett in its top six. Move him while he has value.
Craig Adams: One of the best role players in franchise history, Adams deserves to be remembered for his courage on the penalty kill and his willingness to sacrifice for teammates. But he's done. I have no problem keeping him on the roster and letting him cash checks to finish out the final year of his contract. He's earned it. But he can no longer receive regular minutes. That ice time has to go to a younger, faster Adams.
Lee Stempniak: Who cares?
Brian Gibbons: He has NHL speed, AHL hands, and a peewee league body. He lacks the scoring touch to be a top six forward, and he's too small for a bottom six role.
Tanner Glass: He actually had a strong regular season. But the more change the better. No need to bring him back.
Kris Letang: He's the James Neal of the defense. Letang has never met a simple play he likes. His refusal to work within a structured system and his stunning ineffectiveness on the power play make him highly expendable. If the Pens can find a taker, they should give him away. But it won't happen. Oh, and his salary balloons to $7.25 million next year. Yay.
Paul Martin: Easily the team's best defenseman in the playoffs, Martin was a revelation, finally earning every penny of his hefty contract. He's got one year left at $5 million.
Brooks Orpik: The knee injury against New York was a sad ending to an exceptional Penguins career. He'll sign elsewhere. But we'll always have Free Candy.
Matt Niskanen: Great season. Not a great defender. Niskanen played over his head, and it started to show against New York. He's a third-pair defender on a good team. Giving him top four money would be an enormous mistake. He made $2.3 million this year. He'll likely get more than $4 million on the open market. Let him go.
Rob Scuderi: Prior to the 2009 Cup run, Scuderi was often the local whipping boy. But his strong showing in 09 with Hal Gill and his remarkable skate save in Game Six against the Red Wings transformed him into a folk hero. Fans mourned his departure via free agency and cried tears of regret when he won a second Cup in Los Angeles. He was the steady veteran defender this team so desperately needed. Ray Shero admitted he had made a mistake in letting Scuderi leave town and jumped at the chance to re-sign him. Fans rejoiced. And then they saw him play. Words can't really explain how terrible Scuderi was in the playoffs. He and Letang could have played vaudeville. And at 35, he's only getting older and slower. But get used to it. He's got three more years at $3.4 million.
Olli Maatta: I still don't think people realize how good this kid is going to be. He's a franchise defenseman. Forget Letang. Maatta is your cornerstone.
Robert Bortuzzo: Bortuzzo showed he can be an NHL regular. He plays a gritty, physical game and has a knack for irritating the opposition. The Pens need more Bortuzzo types on the roster. He's signed for next season at $600,000.
Deryk Engelland: He should never see a regular shift on defense again. And, as an unrestricted free agent, he probably won't. I actually wouldn't mind if he returned as a fourth-line winger. But no defense. Ever. Think of the children.
Simon Despres: He has the tools, but there remains doubt as to whether he has the head to use them properly. And thanks to Bylsma's refusal to dress him during even meaningless regular-season games, we still don't know how good Despres can be. Over the past two seasons, the Penguins are 49-18 when Despres plays and 38-25 when he doesn't. Not sure that's all coincidence.
Marc-Andre Fleury: I should preface this by saying I love Fleury like a brother. He's a personal favorite, and I hate how he's been treated over the years. He had another stellar regular season, winning 39 games and posting a .915 save percentage behind an injury-riddled squad devoid of dominant defensemen. He followed it up with an identical .915 save percentage in the postseason. Granted, he did have another brief implosion against Columbus, but he recovered like a champ and provided the club with solid goaltending. Fleury is not the reason this team lost to the Rangers.
That said, it still might be time to turn the page. Fleury has one year left at $5 million. Are the Pens really going to pin next year's Cup hopes on a lame duck goalie with a history of playoff failure? And can they afford a $5-million question mark in goal? Unless the forward depth and defense improves, this team isn't winning with Patrick Roy in net. Might be smarter to go with two cheap veterans and rotate them like the Vanbiesbrouck-Richter and Roloson-Fernandez tandems of yore. I'll be happy if Fleury returns. But I'll understand if he doesn't.
Jeff Zatkoff: He's signed for the next two years at $600,000. He'll be the backup.
Dan Bylsma: I'm writing this 24 hours after the Game Seven loss, and I am shocked Bylsma hasn't been fired yet. When it happens -- and it will happen -- it'll be two years too late. He should have never coached another game after losing to the Flyers in 2012. That series was a disgrace, an absolute travesty. Bylsma retaining his job after that public humiliation sent the franchise into a tailspin. Management's inaction lowered the standard. Players knew there would be no repercussions for going off script. Discipline waned. Defensive responsibility went out the window. All the aforementioned arrogance and entitlement started right there.
No one expected Bylsma to win the Cup this season. A coaching staff of Scotty Bowman, Toe Blake, and Al Arbour wasn't winning with this group. All he had to do to keep his job was not embarrass himself and the franchise with a fifth straight playoff collapse. Blowing a 3-1 series lead to New York qualifies as embarrassing. The Rangers are horrible. The Penguins only had to show up and compete and they would have won in five. But getting the team to show up has never been a Bylsma strength. Having to question a team's willingness to compete in the Stanley Cup playoffs is absurd. But the Penguins seemed emotionally detached and mentally unprepared for playoff hockey. The same problems that crippled the team in 2012 and 2013 remained problems in 2014. Nothing changed. Nothing improved. By the end, the team's lack of support for its coach became painfully apparent.
Bylsma is a nice fella and will land on his feet. He doesn't have to go home, but he can't stay here.
Barry Trotz appears the likely replacement. Trotz overachieved for years in Nashville. Having superstar talent would be a brave new world. He also looks like Boris Badenov, so that's pretty cool. And I've got a million Bullwinkle jokes in the holster. Trotz would seem to be a lock for the gig as long as Shero, a fellow Nashville product, remains GM. But about that...
Ray Shero: Shero built this roster. He's the man most responsible for this season's failure. However, I'm willing to forgive him. Shero built teams capable of winning the Stanley Cup in 2008, 2009, 2010, 2011, 2012, and 2013. Exhaustion got them in 2010 after two straight trips to the Finals. Injuries to Crosby and Malkin doomed 2011. But 2012 and 2013 are both on Bylsma. This year was always meant to be a transition period, a necessity to escape the cap crunch and to reload for 2015.
Of course, the Pens are in salary cap trouble because Shero made some questionable decisions. Investing $17.4 million in two players is insane and has never worked during the cap era. I favored trading Malkin after his MVP season when his stock was at an all-time high, but I don't blame Shero for re-signing him. Crosby's health made Malkin a priority. Shero couldn't move Malkin and then lose Crosby to ongoing concussion woes, leaving the team without a franchise center. Tough to criticize someone for retaining two scoring champs and league MVPs.
I don't blame Shero for moving Jordan Staal. He had no choice. And Staal's continued decline makes Shero look smarter by the day.
I do blame Shero for re-signing Letang. That was a colossal mistake made all the more burdensome due to Letang's unexpected health concerns. I believe Shero signed Letang to secure an asset and then intended to move him before the limited no-trade kicked in. But life happens.
I blame Shero for letting this team get Charmin soft. It really isn't too difficult locating hockey players who give a damn. And by the way, your franchise star has a history of head injuries. You might want to protect him. Relying on Gary Bettman and his merry buffoons to protect stars is like, well, expecting incompetent jackasses to do their jobs. Don't trust jackasses.
I blame Shero for a scouting department that has failed to produce a single damn winger in nine years.
But if Shero goes, who replaces him? Who are the Penguins going to find better than Shero?
In 2009, the Penguins seemed like a dynasty in the making, an offensive juggernaut with three stud centers, a big-game goaltender, and a young, innovative coach. Five years later, the dynasty has crumbled.
But this is a glorious day for Penguins fans. Change is coming. Change begets growth.
And it's well past time this franchise grew up.