The Penguins' announcement yesterday that longtime general manager Craig Patrick is done here came as no surprise. That's what happens when your team misses the playoffs four seasons in a row, even if you're a Hall of Famer with almost 17 years of loyal service under your belt.
What was a surprise is Penguins chief executive officer Ken Sawyer said, as of 12:45 p.m. yesterday, a couple hours after Patrick was given the bad news, that he hadn't received any inquiries about the job. I'm guessing his voice mail had a dozen messages by 1 p.m. It must have had 50 by 5 p.m. And by this morning -- what? -- 100 maybe?
Every assistant general manager in the NHL has to be interested in the Penguins' position, every player personnel guy, every scouting director.
It's not just that there are only 30 NHL general manager jobs, every one precious. The Penguins' new man will have a real shot at being a hero quickly. We're not talking about stepping into your typical losing environment with years of hard work and heartbreak ahead.
This isn't another case of a Dave Littlefield taking the Pirates' job in a nearly impossible small-market situation with bad ownership, a low payroll and little hope of competing with the St. Louis Cardinals and Houston Astros let alone the New York Yankees and Boston Red Sox. The new NHL is a lot more fiscally sane than baseball. The Penguins' job is much better than the Pirates' job. And it's only going to keep getting better.
The Penguins, despite finishing with the NHL's second-worst record this season, have a terrific nucleus of young talent. They have Sidney Crosby and soon should have Evgeni Malkin; the two generally are considered among the top three or four young players in the world. They have Marc-Andre Fleury and Ryan Whitney. They will get another top player when they pick No. 2 in the entry draft this summer.
The Penguins also are poised to step into the 21st century, better late than never. Patrick worked with a ridiculously lean staff that consisted, basically, of assistant general manager Eddie Johnston. Sawyer said the new general manager will be able to hire at least one assistant and also will have the option of keeping or replacing Johnston. "I want to create an organization that suits the times," Sawyer said.
The best thing the for-sale Penguins have to offer is a new ownership group. No matter who buys the team, the ownership will be much stronger financially than the current group led by Mario Lemieux because it soon will have a new, money-making arena. Let's just hope it's in Pittsburgh.
Really, what isn't there to like about the job?
Sawyer and the Penguins can't mess up this hiring.
The field of candidates will be too strong.
Sawyer looked pretty smart all the way around yesterday, not just by cutting ties with Patrick, whose run had grown stale, but also by announcing Michel Therrien will be kept as coach. You can argue it's a bad thing not to give the new general manager the option of bringing in his own man. I think it's right that excellence is being rewarded. Therrien did nice work under tough circumstances after replacing Eddie Olczyk in December. The Penguins never quit on him, even though they were hopelessly out of the playoff chase. They played their best hockey at the end of the season.
It's kind of ironic, isn't it? One reason Patrick isn't being retained is his lousy record of hiring coaches -- seven in all -- after he made the horrible mistake of forcing out Scotty Bowman in 1993. He finally got it right with Therrien, but it was too late to save his job.
Here's another guess:
Therrien won't be a deal-breaker for any of the general manager candidates. If the team is as successful as Sawyer and Therrien think it will be next season, the new man will learn to love Therrien. If the team isn't successful, the new guy can fire Therrien and hire his own coach.
I don't think it will come to that.
I'm betting on Therrien.
I've heard the argument he can coach only young players whom he can bully, that veterans tune him out -- even despise him -- because of his abrasive, demanding, brutally honest style. I don't buy it. For too long, Patrick condoned a country-club environment in the Penguins' dressing room. An abrasive, demanding, brutally honest coach is exactly what they need. If a veteran doesn't want to play for Therrien, get rid of him and find one who does.
"I would think players would want to come to a team that's going to win," Sawyer said.
Let's not kid ourselves. Money is the most important thing for any free agent. Any veteran gladly would play for Tony Soprano if the price were right. But the chance to play with Crosby and Malkin on a team that has a chance to win quickly shouldn't be underestimated as a lure. It's nice to think the days of the Penguins finishing at the bottom of the standings and drafting No. 1 or No. 2 are about to end.
"Let me tell you something," Therrien said. "This is the last year."
What free agent wouldn't want to be a part of that?
What would-be general manager?
Ron Cook can be reached at email@example.com or 412-263-1525.