Everyone agrees the first major decision for the Penguins' new general manager will involve coach Dan Bylsma. Does the new man keep Bylsma? That's almost impossible to imagine. He's going to bring in his own guy and let Bylsma go. He has to let Bylsma go after what team CEO and president David Morehouse described Friday, when he announced the firing of general manager Ray Shero, as "five years of underachieving."
The new general manager also will face difficult player-personnel decisions, surprisingly difficult decisions with a team that is coming off a 109-point regular season -- the second best in Penguins history -- but suddenly looks small, slow, soft and with too little "character," owner/icon Mario Lemieux's word. The hockey club is top-heavy and hard against the NHL salary cap. The most significant decision will center on goaltender Marc-Andre Fleury, who is signed for one more season at a $5.75 million salary with a $5 million cap hit. There are three options with Fleury. Give him a contract extension before next season. Try to trade him this summer. Allow him to play out his contract and risk losing him as a free agent, which hardly seems like an option at all.
The Penguins need to do an extension with Fleury. It doesn't have to be a seven-year deal, which is what they gave him after the 2007-08 season. But it has to be for at least three years. Three years definitely seem right.
Fleury faced many questions when these playoffs began because of his benching last spring in the first-round series against the New York Islanders and his poor play the spring before in a humiliating first-round loss to the Philadelphia Flyers. He answered all, re-establishing himself as one of the NHL's top goaltenders. His 2.40 goals-against average and his .915 save percentage were his best in a postseason since 2008, the first of two consecutive seasons in which he led the Penguins to the Stanley Cup final. Fleury wasn't the reason the Rangers bounced the Penguins last week in the second round. If Sidney Crosby had done his job as well as Fleury did his, the Penguins would be deep in the Eastern Conference final against the Montreal Canadiens and Shero, the NHL's general manager of the year just a season ago, still would be in their employ.
Fleury wasn't perfect. He gave up a goal just 6:20 into Game 1 of the first-round series against the Columbus Blue Jackets, prompting many to wonder if another playoff collapse was imminent. Many more considered the same possibility after his breakdowns late in Game 4 of that series. But Fleury recovered to play some of his best hockey. He won Games 5 and 6 against the Blue Jackets, then got wins in three of the first four games against the Rangers. He pitched consecutive shutouts in Games 2 and 3, stealing Game 3 with 35 saves, many spectacular.
In the end, Fleury couldn't outplay Rangers goaltender Henrik Lundqvist. But few, if any, goaltenders on the planet would have been better than Lundqvist, who allowed one goal in each of the final three games, all Rangers wins. Not even Fleury's harshest haters will say he didn't play well enough for the team to advance. Well, maybe they would, but all clear thinkers would not. Who could have guessed that the great Crosby would have just one goal in the series?
The Penguins aren't going to get a better goaltender than Fleury in any trade. They also don't have anyone in their system ready to step in for him next season. Backup Jeff Zatkoff played well this season, winning 12 games in 20 appearances. But that's a long way from Fleury's 39 wins in 64 appearances. Zatkoff has the look of a backup. The organization likes minor league goaltenders Tristan Jarry and Matt Murray, but they aren't ready for the big stage and bright lights. Boston University goalie and Penguins 2012 draft choice Sean Maguire is even further away.
Fleury will be 30 the day after Thanksgiving and has nine seasons of NHL experience. His best hockey still is to come. The new general manager needs to make sure it happens with the Penguins.
Ron Cook: firstname.lastname@example.org. Ron Cook can be heard on the "Cook and Poni" show weekdays from 10 a.m.-2 p.m. on 93.7 The Fan.