Smizik: Therrien's achievements merit big, new contract

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If Michel Therrien had accomplished on the college level in football or basketball what he has with the Penguins, he would have a contract running through, at least, 2012 and be exalted among followers of that school.

If Therrien had accomplished with the Steelers -- or just about any other NFL team, for that matter -- what he has with the Penguins, he would be signed for about four more years and be revered across the region.

But Therrien, whose two-plus season coaching run with the Penguins has been just a hair short of phenomenal, is signed only through next season and is, at best, tolerated across the region.

If Therrien had a college program or the Steelers on a similar course that he has the Penguins -- a win away from the Stanley Cup final -- his contract would have been torn up weeks ago and a new one -- longer and worth more -- would have been drawn up.

But that's not the way it works in the NHL, where they eat their coaches. They fire coaches almost at whim. They dump them after wonderful seasons. They jettison them when they're in first place in the final weeks of the season.

And, yes, as the Penguins did to Ivan Hlinka in 2001, they fire them four games into a season after they surprisingly had advanced to the conference final some five months earlier.

So it is that Therrien, whose Penguins can eliminate the Philadelphia Flyers in five games in the Eastern Conference final with a win this afternoon at Mellon Arena, is vastly underappreciated by fans, media and the people who count: General manager Ray Shero and owner Mario Lemieux.

Therrien took over just about the worst NHL franchise 31 games into the 2005-06 season. The Penguins were losers of the first order and on their way to finishing last in their division for the fourth consecutive season. In the final two years of that run, they either had the worst or next-to-worst record in the 30-team NHL.

Given time to install his system and build up a sense of discipline in an organization that famously had almost none throughout much of its history, Therrien turned those losers into big-time winners. In the fourth-biggest turnaround in NHL history, the Penguins went from 58 point to 105 last season. They went from not making the playoffs for four seasons in a row to having the second-highest point total in team history.

It was widely expected that after such a giant leap forward, the Penguins would take a step back this season. In light of the injuries that sidelined Sidney Crosby and Marc-Andre Fleury for long periods and the failure of veterans Mark Recchi and Gary Roberts to make any kind of contributions, that backward step figured to be enormous.

It wasn't. Therrien kept his team together without Fleury, without Crosby, without both of them and without the veteran leadership that was supposed to keep this young team striving. The Penguins won their division and finished with 105 points.

So where's the new contract?

Like we said, it's hockey. It's not done that way.

Proof of that is the extension Therrien was offered last year after turning the perennial losers into big winners: One year.

It was an insult and one that clearly stated Therrien, who was hired by Craig Patrick, was not Shero's guy. Therrien would be the guy to do the dirty work and build this team up, but not the guy to get them to the promised land.

Therrien played the role of company man by calling the extension "a great vote of confidence."

Ha! It was more an affront to his ability than a vote of confidence.

There's no doubt Shero will be coming around with a new contract when this season ends, be it with a Stanley Cup championship or not.

Here's the only question: Will Therrien be willing to sign it?

There's no question he has a great thing going in Pittsburgh. The town is hockey mad. Shero is a first-rate general manager, and the talent level is spectacular. But if he should win the Cup, or at least get to the final, there will be a market out there for Therrien. If he does the same next year, in what could be the final year of his contract, there will be a giant market out there for him.

That doesn't mean Therrien's going anywhere. Shero's too smart to offer another one-year extension, and Therrien's too smart to accept one.

The Penguins have a coach for the long run, and it's time to give him the contract he deserves.


Bob Smizik can be reached at bsmizik@post-gazette.com .


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