What Next For Pittsburgh?
A week ago, Pittsburgh topped a lackluster New York Rangers 4-2 to put themselves within a single win of the Conference Finals. Today they are clearing out their lockers – defeated, dejected.
The Rangers demolished the Pens in game 5, before Henrik Lundqvist shut the door through games 6 and 7 to send the Blue Shirts in to the next round. For New York, dreams of their first Cup since 1994 remain alive – for Pittsburgh another crushing post season exit and a whole heap of questions to be answered.
After years in the mire, Pittsburgh accumulated a number of top talents via the draft; not least their superstar Captain Sidney Crosby. The consensus pick for this years Hart Trophy, Crosby had just 1 goal in 13 play-off games. James Neal fared little better, scoring 2 goals and 4 points over the same span. Evgeni Malkin got over a slow start to the 2014 play-offs to finish as the teams leading scorer (6+8); but for a team so reliant on its top 6, the way in which the Rangers shut them down re-opened old wounds from 12 months ago, when Boston so easily man handled the Penguins in the Conference Final.
What was supposed to be a golden era for the Penguins, a franchise supposedly on the brink of dynasty status (or at least, as close as a team can get in the modern era), has just one Cup to its name. What’s worse is that while other teams like Boston, Chicago and LA maintain their powerhouse status, and remain perennial contenders, the Pens seem to be falling away.
The reputation of players like Malkin and star D man Kris Letang appear to be slowly sinking, whilst Marc-Andre Fleury will likely never shake the ‘play-off choker’ tag. These criticisms often seem harsh though, as the supporting cast leaves much to be desired and the stars are often left to paper over cracks in the roster.
It’s hard to see Chris Kunitz breaking the 30 goal barrier without Crosby as a line mate, whilst the Penguins bottom 6 probably won’t scare anyone. Gone are the days of Jordan Staal, Max Talbot and Tyler Kennedy.
The team is now at a cross roads. Dominating the Metropolitan Division counts for nothing if you fade in the post season; and that domination is far from guaranteed. It’s hard to envisage some Metro teams being as bad as they were this year again.
Dan Bylsma’s future is under scrutiny, as is that of GM Ray Shero. Bylsma seems to have been out coached in each of the Pens last two post seasons; with the Bruins and Rangers able to counter the 1-2 punch of Crosby and Malkin. Had the Rangers compounded schedule not led to some fatigue, things might have been even uglier for the Pennsylvania franchise.
For a team that would fancy themselves one of the NHL’s elite clubs; being ‘out thought’ isn’t an option and more than one pundit has noted Bylsma’s Cup winning team had an awful lot of Michael Therrien’s finger prints on it. Whilst the former Ducks and Kings winger remains one of the games most affable characters, being genial doesn’t win hockey games and with the likes of Barry Trotz available there are options available to Pittsburgh should they wish to freshen things up behind the bench.
Shero meanwhile needs to convince the teams ownership he still has the ‘old magic’.
Matt Niskanen’s stand out season cemented the idea Pittsburgh made out like bandits in their deal with Dallas, but the trade market has hardly been kind to the Pens these past few years. The deal that sent Jordan Staal to Carolina hasn’t really worked out for anyone, Jarome Iginla didn’t stick around and Lee Stempniak is a functional winger; hardly someone to grace a banner outside the arena or sell a bag full of jerseys.
The situation is complicated by having a vast amount of money tied up to a handful of players, and a number of others heading for some form of free agency this summer. Can Shero find a way to keep Niskanen? What plan does he have for pending UFA Brooks Orpik? Or prospect defencemen like Derrick Pouliot? What about the other seven forward spots not taken by Crosby, Malkin, Neal, Kunitz or Dupuis?
And do they stick with Fleury? Who restored some faith in his ability to perform in the post season this year, but is an unrestricted free agent in 2015.
There are 11 unrestricted free agents in all, and 3 restricted free agents. This could represent a chance to radically overhaul the roster – or simply tweak what they already have. Much of this will be shaped by Shero’s future. Whether he remains GM is the first question that needs answering.
Pittsburgh needs to decide on its direction, and whether Shero is still the man to steer the ship. If he can’t build a roster capable of winning a championship, either via revamp or reshape, then obviously they need to find someone else who (they think) can. Because without a competitive roster, it doesn’t matter who you have behind the bench.
It’s a unique situation for a Cup contender – because the Pens are a contender whilst they have Crosby, Letang et al on board. They could completely clean house, or stay the course.
Whatever the franchise decides now could have an impact for years to come. And as such it may represent Mario Lemieux’s biggest decision as an owner to date.