There's nothing quite so exhilarating for a city and a region than to jump on board with a sports team heading down a long and twisting championship road. And there's no sport that makes that ride so exciting as hockey. Love hockey or not, the Stanley Cup playoffs are the best postseason in sports.
It wasn't just the dedicated and passionate fans who took this ride. Casual fans and those who didn't know a thing about hockey shared the experience. In these tough times, the Penguins were a topic with which we all could relate.
Whether we were scratching our heads in wonderment over the team's floundering play in the first two games or reveling in the way it came back to make winning the Cup more than a possibility, the Penguins were the talk of the town.
There were memorable moments to savor, and for most none more so than Max Talbot's miracle goal that ushered in the epic three-overtime win in Game 5. But the memory of this two-month journey that most will stick with us did not involve Talbot or any of his teammates.
There was nothing classier or more unforgettable about this run than the way the Penguins fans, ranging from disappointed to heartbroken, sat in their seats at Mellon Arena to watch the Detroit Red Wings celebrate the winning of the Stanley Cup.
Yeah, hockey etiquette calls for such behavior, but who's thinking about good manners at such a crushing moment? There's no championship celebration in sports that can match the awarding of the Cup for drama and tradition. Even non-Detroit fans were wondering which teammate captain Nicklas Lidstrom would designate as the first, after him, to hoist the Cup. Even if it isn't your team, it's a neat bit of sports history and a moment to treasure. So to the great credit of Penguins fans, the most loyal in Pittsburgh, they sat, watched and wondered as the Red Wings celebrated.
Nothing would have been worse, and it could have happened elsewhere, if the fans turned their back on this special event and let the champions celebrate by themselves.
And so the question of the day is this: Will Penguins fans ever get to see their team raise the Cup? Will they some day get to wonder who captain Sidney Crosby will turn to first?
For the moment the answer to those questions rests not with Crosby or Evgeni Malkin or Marc-Andre Fleury or even coach Michel Therrien. The fate of the franchise left their hands Wednesday night around 10:45 and was passed to general manager Ray Shero. It will be the decision-making ability of Shero, steeped in hockey knowledge but an inexperienced GM, that will impact the team's future the most.
The Penguins were the first team to benefit greatly from the franchise-friendly aspect of the NHL's field-leveling collective bargaining agreement and now they must be first to navigate the player-friendly facet of that same agreement.
Under the old CBA, which did not have a salary cap, players could not be unrestricted free agents until they were 31. Under the new agreement, that age is dropped to 27 or seven years of experience. It's the change in age requirement that gives free agency to winger Ryan Malone and defenseman Brooks Orpik.
They, along with winger Marian Hossa, are free agents in line to receive more money than the Penguins should be willing to pay. But that's for Shero, with input from ownership, to decide. Maybe it would be wise for this center-rich team to keep one of its two best wingers. If not, players of similar talent must be brought in. That, too, falls to Shero.
A word about Hossa: If he does not come back, that does not mean the deal that brought him to the Penguins at the trading deadline was not a resounding success. And that's regardless of what the players Shero gave up for Hossa go on to do. Without Hossa, the Penguins don't make it to the sixth game of the final, maybe don't make it to the final. What he brought to the team in terms of success and how the game should be played will pay dividends for years to come.
The Penguins have enough talent. What they didn't have is what Hossa gave them.
It's pretty much given the team must meet any contract offers for Fleury, a restricted free agent. But what kind of agreement Shero can negotiate is all-important. Does he go long-term with Fleury or does he give himself maneuverability and go for a shorter deal? And how far does he go to keep Fleury, who will receive monster offers?
Centers Malkin and Jordan Staal will be restricted free agents after next season and Shero must determine what to do with both. Is now the time to sign them or does he wait the year that's still on their contracts? How much does he pay them? Can the team afford three high-priced centermen and still have enough money to bring in wingers to compliment them?
Finally, what does Shero do with Therrien? He gave him a disrespectful one-year extension after an exceptional 2006-07 season. To offer up another one-year extension to the coach who took his team to the Stanley Cup final would be nothing more than an indication Shero is just waiting for one stumble before he fires Therrien. The coach deserves two years -- at least.
And Penguins fans deserve all the right decisions from Shero. That's impossible, but if ever there was a fan base that deserve as much, it's this one.
Correction/Clarification: (Published June 7, 2008) Penguins forwards Evgeni Malkin and Jordan Staal will be restricted free agents after next season. Their status was incorrectly stated in this as originally published June 6, 2008.
Bob Smizik can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org .