As the Penguins held final meetings and prepared to scatter Tuesday, it seemed that everyone was stepping up to take responsibility for the team's heart-stabbing loss to Philadelphia in the first round of the Eastern Conference playoffs.
Ray Shero was first: "As a general manager, I signed every one of those players, re-signed them or traded for them, so I'm responsible for the outcome of the playoffs."
Coach Dan Bylsma was next, followed by several players who said it was a collective collapse after a season with 51 wins, 108 points and sky-high expectations.
The tougher task was explaining what happens from here.
Much of that will fall to Shero, who made a couple of things clear.
He expects to keep Bylsma, calling him "the right guy," as well as assistants Tony Granato and Todd Reirden.
And he realizes there is a problem with underachieving in the postseason.
"The problem is that we have what we feel is a real good team," Shero said. "We proved that over the course of the year. But we play those games to get into the playoffs. That is where you prove how good you can be, and this year we fell short."
Shero faces club-defining decisions on things such as whether to revamp the defense, which he noted "failed us terribly" in allowing 30 goals in the six-game series loss to the Flyers; whether to stick with the three-center blueprint featuring Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin and Jordan Staal; and which eligible players to try to re-sign, with Crosby and Staal the biggest names on that list.
"It's a big summer for us, and we're going to take the next two months to sort through this," Shero said.
Compounding Shero's decisions is the fact that the collective bargaining agreement between the NHL and its players union expires in September. It's not known how that might affect the salary cap or other aspects of doing team business.
"I'm going to operate business as usual, and my business as usual will be to try to re-sign the players," Shero said.
Crosby and Staal are under contract through next summer, when they would be eligible for unrestricted free agency, but under the expiring CBA they can re-sign beginning July 1.
"Our goal is to re-sign both of them," Shero said. "I think they're both special hockey players. They're great assets. They're at a young age. They're in their prime."
But there has been speculation that one of the centers, perhaps specifically Staal could be traded for financial or strategic reasons, and Shero noted that nothing will be determined "until we can sit down over the next month or so and make some personnel decisions."
Crosby heralded the strong-down-the-middle approach, which helped the Penguins win the 2009 Stanley Cup.
"I think we've shown that three centers can work," he said, then laughed. "I think there's no doubt there."
Still, Crosby can't guarantee he will be as quick as he was in a similar situation in 2007, when he signed a five-year deal July 10 with an annual salary cap hit of $8.7 million.
It's not that he has any intention of exploring free agency, though.
"It's kind of hard being in the situation that it is with the CBA where typically you'd figure that you'd automatically start talking pretty [quickly]," he said. "It might be a matter of waiting to see how [the CBA] plays out and what makes sense for both sides.
"That's probably the only thing [persuading] both sides to kind of wait a bit."
Staal perhaps could get more money on the open market and move up to be a No. 1 or No. 2 center with another team. He wasn't committing to staying in Pittsburgh -- "We'll see what the future holds," he said -- but he acknowledged a strong draw beyond salary.
"Talking to a lot of guys who have come and left, they've always had a soft spot for Pittsburgh," Staal said. "They loved playing there. I love being here, and I love the guys in the [dressing] room. And that's a huge factor for myself. "
The Penguins eligible for unrestricted free agency July 1 are forwards Steve Sullivan, Arron Asham and Richard Park and goaltender Brent Johnson.
Sullivan, with 17 goals and 48 points, was the most productive of that lot. He said he still needed to meet with Shero and Bylsma and, at age 37, "We'll see what the options are and then discuss as a family and go from there."
Defensemen Matt Niskanen and Brian Strait and forward Eric Tangradi are eligible for restricted free agency. Strait and Tangradi are prospects playing in the American Hockey League playoffs, but Niskanen made it clear what he hopes for.
"I've fallen in love with this organization, and I think I've played my best here," Niskanen said. "I hope I'm back."
For much more on the Penguins, read the Pens Plus blog with Dave Molinari and Shelly Anderson at www.post-gazette.com/plus. Shelly Anderson: firstname.lastname@example.org, 412-263-1721 or Twitter @pgshelly First Published April 25, 2012 5:00 PM