Gene Collier: Penguins' decision baffling



With reputable hockey media all across North America reporting early Friday that the Penguins had fired both Ray Shero and Dan Bylsma, it was unnerving when CEO David Morehouse went to a podium a few minutes before noon and effectively pronounced those reports to be exactly half right.

Shero had been relieved of his general manager's duties, Morehouse said on behalf of Penguins ownership, invoking the full-proof "new direction" reasoning executives like to use for the ceremonial rolling of heads. I much prefer that to "philosophical differences," as there are, in sports, precious few philosophy majors.

But Bylsma wasn't mentioned, briefly making me wonder if Morehouse planned to walk out of Consol Energy Center's media room, then walk back in and start over, this time announcing the termination of the head coach, perhaps due to philosophical differences.

It was only when asked that Morehouse finally mentioned the winningest coach in Penguins history.

"We have not fired Dan Bylsma," he said.

Morehouse did this all by himself, without chairman and co-owner Mario Lemieux, without co-owner Ron Burkle. I couldn't have felt worse for him if he'd been made to walk out there with both Shero and Bylsma and intone the standard reality-show dictum: "Unfortunately, one of you will be going home today."

Trying to make sense of what appears a spectacular half-measure will pretty much qualify as an Olympic sport around here over the next few weeks, but the one big truth in it all is that while ownership clearly sees the need for change after five postseason flameouts in five springs, it is not entirely comfortable with change, especially if change means the subtraction of Bylsma and assistant GM Jason Botterill from the hockey operation.

"It's too easy to blame it on the coach and throw the coach out and have the GM stay; it's more complicated than that," Burkle told me in an interview after the formal news conference.

"As Mario said, Dan's done a lot of great things here, and he's been a good coach.

"When we try to evaluate why we haven't been more successful in the playoffs, obviously the coach comes into the picture, but, if you listened to what we said about what kind of team we want to have -- and we don't have what kind of team we want to have today -- then that comes back to more of a GM issue."

Once the Penguins finally stopped gagging up a 3-1 lead to back out of the series against the New York Rangers and making it obvious that some structural change was inevitable, I thought management might have a more difficult time defending Shero than Bylsma. What I didn't expect was for Burkle and Lemieux to chat with me about it. Getting a Lemieux quote is like coming across a raccoon in the daylight -- means something's wrong. Le Magnifique isn't available and rarely speaks publicly, but compared to Burkle, he's Anderson Cooper.

Lemieux was adamant when I asked if Bylsma, at the end of this general manager search, might keep his job.

"Absolutely," said 66, "that's why we didn't fire him. He's a good coach. Look at his record, in the regular season, in the playoffs. If he was fired today, there'd be a lot of teams lined up to get him. He's been a great asset. If you look around the league, there are some great organizations. Look at Detroit. They don't win the Cup every year, but [Mike] Babcock is still the coach. If you have a great coach, you're not going to win every year, but certainly the expectation is still there for Detroit and a team like us."

Funny he should mention Babcock.

Plenty of speculation suddenly surrounds Babcock's future and the Penguins' interest in it, but, as we certainly learned yesterday, assume nothing with this hockey club.

I asked Burkle if a prospective general manager would eliminate himself by letting it be known he preferred to hire his own coach.

"No," Burkle said, "but we'd ask him why."

The extent of support that still exists for Bylsma within the organization was likely the most astounding aspect of the developments Friday, but Lemieux didn't spare anyone else much criticism.

"I think Sid's been disappointed in his play for sure, and we certainly feel the same way," Lemieux said in what is probably as close to a discouraging word anyone in management has ever said about Sidney Crosby. "He's had a long year, especially with the Olympics. He would certainly be the first one to say that he didn't play up to his expectations."

The chairman further noted that it takes speed, grit and character to win the Stanley Cup, and that these Penguins failed to persuade him that two out of three ain't bad.

"I feel [character] has been missing a little bit this year," Lemieux said.

"Once you get in the playoffs, it's long two months, it's a long journey, and to get to the end you need grit certainly, but you need character to go through adversity, from game to game.

"We have the star power here in Pittsburgh. It's a matter of surrounding them with the right people, the right people who have the character to complement the stars that we have here."

Cynics would say that ownership is only complimenting Bylsma and keeping him around to lure prospective employers, one of whom might pick up the balance of what the Penguins owe on a contract that runs another two years -- I'm guessing $7 million.

"I think if people thought we were going to let Dan go and this was just a way to somehow prolong it, well that doesn't make any sense," Burkle said, "so I'm not quite sure why anybody would think that."

With all respect, when it comes to the Penguins, after Friday, I'm not sure why anybody would think anything about anybody or anything.

Gene Collier: gcollier@post-gazette.com.


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