Thoughts Part II: Season’s Over, Now What?

Published on May 14th, 2014

By: Meesh Shanmugam (@HockeyMeesh)

This is going to be the weirdest offseason we have seen for the Penguins in a while. It is a team that is still close to being a Cup contender. Yet it’s a team that isn’t meeting expectations.

Let’s start there.

Expectations

The expectations going into this season were not the usual lofty Stanley Cup champion expectations. Going into the season, the roster saw a big drop off with the losses of Cooke, Kennedy, Iginla, Morrow, Eaton, Murray (arguably), and other part-time NHLers. No matter how you felt about those players or how valuable you felt they were, they all played a part in making the Penguins a very deep in the playoffs last year. That team failed against Boston and very little of it was replaced appropriately (in the end, it was Scuderi in place of Murray lol) due to cap hits, players available, etc. This year’s team was never going to be as good as last year’s and thus probably wouldn’t match up to Boston again.

Everyone knew this could be a transition year, especially Shero. (Matt Freed/Post-Gazette)

Everyone knew this could be a transition year, especially Shero. (Matt Freed/Post-Gazette)

This year’s team also felt some bumps and bruises along the way. They lost Vokoun before the season started, Dupuis in December, and most of the team sat out at one point or another for long-term injuries.

No one called this team a Cup favorite in March. Bylsma and the team even publicly addressed it. They appreciated it, which was a concern in itself.

So what were the expectations? For most people, it was probably another Conference Final loss to Boston. For others, maybe a loss to Philadelphia in the second round. Some of the national media didn’t even have Pittsburgh beating Columbus.
(Personally, I had the Pens losing to the Rangers in the second round. Sorry, I need some outlet to brag.)

The Pens struggled at times with Columbus but got past them in the end. The low end of the expectation spectrum was met. They “lucked” out in getting the Rangers in the second round instead of the Flyers and their mind games. At this point, many people picked the Penguins to win a long series in 6 or 7, but several people were picking the Rangers as well.

After a Game 1 loss at home, everyone hesitated. If the Penguins couldn’t take advantage of a Rangers team playing their 3rd game in 4 nights, perhaps this was the end of the line for them. Expectations fell as well. People weren’t mad; they were disappointed, but they knew this team had issues and struggled at times in the first round.

Then, everything went insane. The Penguins won 3-0 with a complete effort. Great defense, fantastic puck support, and good puck management. They did it again with a 2-0 victory. Then they did it again in a 4-2 victory. Suddenly this team was up 3-1 in the series, everyone’s expectations changed to at least the conference final, AND this team was playing like a team that actually could be a Stanley Cup favorite with their commitment and cohesiveness.

That is where everything went awry. The optics of this team, series, and matchup were scrambled. At no point in the entire year were the Penguins consistently as smart and cohesive as they were in Games 2-4. The Rangers were also playing their own brand of poor hockey that inflated it. The scenario set a new, unsustainable expectation that, as we now see, will change the image of the franchise forever.

Despite everyone’s original expectations, as of the end of Game 4, losing to New York in the second round would not, and did not, meet expectations.

It’s a tough life for a sports franchise and all those involved. Everyone is measured by winning vs. expectations. Expectations are dynamic and ever-changing based on scenarios. Winning is mandatory despite the unfair changes. So here we are, again.

Shero/Bylsma Playoff Recap

The good times seem so long ago. (Paul Sancya/AP Photo)

The good times seem so long ago. (Paul Sancya/AP Photo)

  • 2009: Bylsma hired in February, unleashes Therrien’s defensively responsible team to actually hit their potential, Stanley Cup Championship. (Read Jesse Marshall’s piece about the evolution of the Penguins)
  • 2010: Pens hope to repeat, lose in 7 games to Montreal in the second round despite having a 3-2 series lead. Montreal was a special team with Halak and the Penguins had played a lot of hockey over three years, perhaps this was coming.
  • 2011: Pens enter the playoffs without Crosby and Malkin due to injuries. Run up a 3-1 series lead on Tampa Bay before losing in 7 games at home. Blame the injuries?
  • 2012: Pens and Flyers play the most absurd playoff series seen in years, featuring no defense, goaltending, or sanity. Pens lose control completely as they start the series 0-3 and lose in 6 games.
  • 2013: Pens lose to the Bruins in a four game sweep in the conference final that sees them lose control and go dormant on offense.
  • 2014: Pens find their game to get up to a 3-1 lead in the series but then go dormant on offense to lose in 7 games.

Success, perhaps understandable failure, injury failure, unexpectedly chaotic failure, unexpectedly harsh failure, unexpectedly sudden failure.

29 teams end the season with failure every year. That’s not a problem.  It’s the “unexpectedly” that kills in the end.

Dan Bylsma

Admittedly, I was on the “Fire Bylsma” train after the loss to Boston last season, as highlighted in this article from The Hockey Writers last year. I think Bylsma is a good coach, but I don’t think he is a right match for this team, nor do I think this team is the right match for him. It does go both ways.

Bylsma impressed me this year. He dealt with all of the injuries quite well throughout the season, handled Fleury/Zatkoff very well through some soft goals and growing pains, and really did make several “adjustments” throughout the season that helped this team along. He did everything you could ask for out of a coach in general in the regular season.

Despite his good work, I am more concerned about the “right” coach than a “good” coach. The inconsistent efforts from the team in the regular season and especially in the playoffs suggested that the roster may have been tuning him out at times as they knew their own talent/potential. This was a team that didn’t want to give 110% until they were truly pushed and I don’t believe they were accepting those pushes consistently from the coach. In the end, they waited too long to push themselves and that’s why they’re done for the season.

Maybe we'll stop seeing the word "adjustments". (Jamie Sabau/Getty Images)

Maybe we’ll stop seeing the word “adjustments”. (Jamie Sabau/Getty Images)

It’s incredibly unfair to coaches, but they all know how this works. Teams often tune out a coach after a while and that’s why every coach has a shelf life of some length. I fully believe that’s the issue here. It’s not that Bylsma is a bad coach, or doesn’t make adjustments, etc. It’s that the team isn’t committed to him as a motivational factor. He no longer brings the best out of this team when they are dealing with adversity, as we have seen in the playoffs recently.

For those reasons, I think it’s time for Bylsma to go.

Ray Shero

Ray Shero certainly shouldn’t escape criticism. The big question is how much criticism does he deserve? How much influence did Bylsma have in the players Shero has chosen, signed, and extended? How much of that was at the urging of Shero? Are all of these puck-moving defensemen a part of Shero’s plan regardless of coach or a part of his plan for Bylsma as coach? Did ownership have any major influence on any of these guys?

Ray Shero is much tougher to judge right now because Dan Bylsma is the only coach that he has actually hired. (Craig Patrick hired Therrien, remember Craig Patrick?) I find it to be incredibly difficult to judge Shero’s tendencies without having a second coach to use in comparisons. Only the men behind the scenes really know if Shero “hitched his wagon” to Bylsma, created part of this on his own, or whatever other options there are.

Regardless, Shero has to take heat for a few things. The drafting has been pitiful, which I also looked at last season for The Hockey Writers. As everyone has seen by now, no draft pick of his since 2007 has had more than 15 NHL goals…and that’s Dustin Jeffrey. To his credit, he has made some trades to help that. He ditched Angelo Esposito as part of the trade for Hossa and Dupuis.

He also traded a few for potential short-term boosts. He traded away Ben Hanowski and Ken Agostino to get Iginla. Luca Caputi was sent away for Alexei Ponikarovsky. Joe Morrow moved for Brenden Morrow.

Finally, it should be noted that he has traded several picks in general to get trade deadline deals done, which has limited his drafting ability.

In the end though, Shero hasn’t drafted many useful players (Maatta and the 2012 class will help and 2013 TBD), and he hasn’t produced anything long-term aside from Dupuis with the players/picks he has traded away either. That’s the sign of a franchise that can’t fill holes from within and is constantly reaching for solutions when players cost the most at the trade deadline. That’s not a sustainable situation and the Penguins depth issues are a result of it and could get worse with this cycle.

Meanwhile, there is the signing for Rob Scuderi to fix an old mistake. That signing turned out to be dismal and the Penguins still have three years of it to deal with. The team certainly didn’t know they would have Olli Maatta jumping to the NHL like he did to supply another NHL defenseman, but the Scuderi signing was clearly misguided.

Fixing a mistake turned into a mistake. (Jamie Sabau/Getty Images)

Fixing a mistake turned into a mistake. (Jamie Sabau/Getty Images)

As for guys like Adams, Kobasew, etc., they were cheap ways to fill roster holes on a team that had major cap issues going into this season. Additionally, I have no clue if a guy like Adams is a Shero plan, Bylsma plan, ownership plan, or some combination of the three.

My assessment on Shero ends with I would keep him, but he would be on the hot seat. From my vantage point, I can’t fully assess him with Bylsma alone. Ownership knows if this was a Shero plan, Shero/Bylsma plan, or Shero deferring to Bylsma plan.

The drafting and roster plan is flawed. If Shero is going to adapt that to a new coach, perhaps he should stay and we can see what he does with a new coach. If that’s his plan regardless of coach. Maybe it’s time to part ways. I trust ownership on this decision, either way. They know the Shero/Bylsma plan and relationship far better than I do.

Roster

Is it troubling to anyone else that the players who stood out the most in the playoffs were the players who had money on the line?

Jussi Jokinen – free agent.
Brandon Sutter – restricted free agent.
Matt Niskanen – free agent.
Marc-Andre Fleury – playing for his career possibly, to avoid amnesty and a bad next contract.

You did relatively well, Flower. (Bruce Bennett/Getty Images)

You did relatively well, Flower. (Bruce Bennett/Getty Images)

That is one of the motivational issues I had going back to the Bylsma issue as well. The consistent stars for the Penguins were the guys who are about to get paid and not the guys who should be earning their contracts (Malkin, Martin aside).

As for what happens with this roster, there will be a lot of changes if only because there are 7 forwards, 5 defensemen, and 2 goalies under contract for next season.

UFAs – Stempniak, Jokinen, Goc, Pyatt, Glass, Kobasew, Vitale, Conner, Zolnierczyk, Gibbons, Orpik, Niskanen, Engelland, Vokoun
RFAs – Sutter, Megna, Despres

On the trade block side, I fully believe in the idea that every single player is tradable if the offer from the other side is outlandish enough to make it worthwhile (ie – if the Kings offer you Doughty, Kopitar, and Quick for Malkin, you’re taking it, so don’t tell me Malkin isn’t tradable).

However, I think it’s safe to say that Crosby and Malkin will still be Penguins next year no matter what.

I imagine the Penguins will listen to offers for everyone (who wouldn’t), but I find it hard to believe that they will go with a major roster move if they fire the coach and/or GM.

This isn’t a bad team. This isn’t a team that needs to be “blown up.” It needs a shake-up, which could easily come from just a coaching and/or GM change alone. If the right price came along, I wouldn’t be surprised at all if Shero moved Neal due to his streakiness/discipline issues. I have seen some suggestion of Letang, but I think he is less likely to move because I think the Penguins will have a hard time getting the return they want for him.

The Penguins are still in their Stanley Cup window. That is very important to remember. Trading a guy like Letang or Neal can be a step back for the roster that no one wants to take in that window without getting something to fix it. I think it is much easier to trade Neal and replace him than it is with Letang. That being said, if there is a coaching change and any sort of drastic system change (which I don’t expect to happen with any change), Letang’s value could plummet for the Penguins and make him worth trading.

Basically, there are still a ton of moving parts and it’s very difficult to gauge trades when you don’t know the coach or even the GM that might be doing it. Thus, I’ll save most of my trade speculation for after the GM/coaching part is done.

Final quick thoughts on the roster
  • I don’t think there is any chance Orpik returns. I was hoping his rights would get traded for a draft pick, but the knee injury might ruin that.
  • Scuderi had a tough season, but I’m hesitant to say he should be shipped out until seeing who the new coach is and what the new plan will be. He cannot be an amnesty buyout, but he can be bought out. It would cost the Penguins 2/3rds of his salary against the cap though and thus would only have marginal value. The best move might be to trade him to a team that needs to hit the cap floor and accept little to no return on him/maybe even eat some of his salary. Again though, let’s see what the new plan is first.
  • Simon Despres could get a new life with a new coach/staff and that could be an interesting piece to watch in the defensive group. I had expected Shero to trade his RFA rights, but things change with a new staff.
  • I don’t expect Jussi Jokinen or Matt Niskanen to return. They both have huge opportunities to cash in and it would really be foolish not to take them, especially with an unknown landscape in Pittsburgh now.
  • The disappearance of both Chris Kunitz and James Neal in the postseason was just as unacceptable as Crosby’s lack of goal-scoring.  Both wingers took far too many penalties and didn’t produce nearly enough goals.  The long-term plan for both will need to be looked at with a new coach in place.
  • Fleury is an interesting piece right now.  He was solid in the regular season, dropped off a little in the postseason, but was still good enough to win.  There is certainly no other plan in place for next season.  At $5 mil. though, he is an expensive cap hit in a favorable goalie market.  He could very well stay, and he would deserve to, but the Penguins would be foolish to not look at other options to save cap money and improve the roster.  Everything is an option right now.

That’s all for now. Thank you for reading through this and all of the postgame thoughts through the season. There will be plenty more to come as this crazy offseason progresses.