The thinking was that Dan Bylsma would be fired if the Pittsburgh Penguins lost in Game 7 against the New York Rangers on Tuesday.
In the wake of the Penguins’ collapse versus the Rangers in the Eastern Conference semifinal, there’s increasing speculation that general manager Ray Shero could join his coach in the unemployment line.
It’s not hard to comprehend, considering the Penguins have heaped playoff failure upon themselves since winning the Stanley Cup in 2009.
In each of the five years since, the Penguins have been eliminated from the post-season by a team that had finished below them in the regular season, and Bylsma has watched as twice, including against the Rangers, his team has not been able to convert a 3-1 series lead into a victory.
A report in the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review on Wednesday indicated that Penguins ownership thinks that Bylsma lost the room, and specifically, the support of stars Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin. The fate of Shero and Bylsma, it was expected, would be decided during ownership meetings this week. Frustration on the part of Mario Lemieux and Ron Burkle would be easy to understand.
Several factors conspired to send the Penguins home for the summer, and it wasn’t because the Rangers were a vastly superior team. Perhaps it was one with more depth at forward and a goaltending edge with Henrik Lundqvist over Marc-Andre Fleury, but the Rangers were beatable.
Crosby didn’t have an extra gear in the playoffs, the kind that usually drives players of his stature to play and produce at the next level. He had just one goal and eight assists in 13 games, and a mere three points in the semifinal. Unlike the first round, when the Columbus Blue Jackets tried to get Brandon Dubinsky on the ice as much as possible against Crosby, Rangers coach Alain Vigneault didn’t always try to look for a matchup against No. 87.
And though there was some publicity regarding the physical attention he was getting from the Rangers, Crosby himself said it was nothing he had not seen before. Still, he lost his composure at times.
A union of Crosby and Malkin worked for Bylsma in the latter stages of the opening round, but had little impact against New York. At times, Malkin dominated; others, there appeared to be disinterest.
It’s clear to anyone who watched even bits of the series that neither was close to good enough at the same time that Vigneault was out-coaching Bylsma.
Chris Kunitz and James Neal, another pair of high-profile forwards, were missing in action for most of the playoffs. Kunitz had three goals and Neal two, and both are in the midst of long-term deals.
Two of the Penguins’ top three scorers in the playoffs were forward Jussi Jokinen, who had 10 points, and defenceman Matt Niskanen, who had nine. Both are going to be unrestricted free agents this summer, and neither is expected to return.
Fleury has not been the same goalie since he made a Cup-saving stop on the Detroit Red Wings’ Nicklas Lidstrom in Game 7 of the final five years ago. Fleury is headed for unrestricted free agency in 2015, but there’s the thought he has run his course in Pittsburgh, not unlike Bylsma.
Shero signed Bylsma to a two-year extension last spring after the Penguins were swept by the Boston Bruins in the conference final, a move that was surprising considering that the Penguins couldn’t match the Bruins in any area of the ice.
The Penguins have the seventh-highest payroll in the NHL. Defenceman Kris Letang is under contract until 2022 to the tune of an annual salary cap hit of $7.25-million US, starting next season. Fellow blueliner Rob Scuderi comes in at $3.375 million a year through 2016-17. Neither is a good contract.
Crosby, of course, is going nowhere. Malkin shouldn’t be either.
Fact is, no team should be far off when Crosby and Malkin are on the roster. It’s time for a fresh set of eyes behind the bench, and perhaps in the front office, to get the Penguins back to the Cup final.