Analysis: Penguins' front office needs major overhaul

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Darrell Sapp, Post-Gazette
Penguins GM Craig Patrick
Click photo for larger image.

The Penguins need a general manager who is bold and proactive, aggressive and creative. A general manager who is nimble and involved, who can anticipate developments and react to them quickly, well and with conviction.

A guy exactly like Craig Patrick.

Or, more to the point, a guy exactly like Craig Patrick was when he joined the Penguins in 1989.

That Craig Patrick is not to be confused with the Craig Patrick who has overseen the Penguins' descent into the nether reaches of the NHL, where they've spent enough time in recent years to qualify for citizenship.

There was a time when Patrick was regarded as the best general manager in hockey, when be brought in Bob Johnson and Scott Bowman, because he wanted to assemble the game's best management team. When he traded for Ron Francis and Larry Murphy, Ulf Samuelsson and Rick Tocchet because he knew they could help his team win championships. When he acquired Darius Kasparaitis and Petr Nedved, Robert Lang and Alex Kovalev because he recognized they were undervalued assets who could thrive in the atmosphere he had created in Pittsburgh.

But over the past few winters, Patrick has lost his edge. Not coincidentally, conversations with team officials indicate his support inside the organization -- where so many were fiercely loyal to him for so long -- has eroded dramatically.

   
Deals of a lifetime

GM Craig Patrick has pulled off several outstanding trades, bringing in the likes of Alex Kovalev, Petr Nedved, Darius Kasparaitis and Robert Lang, but it's the three deals he made in the 1990-91 season and another in '91-92 that probably were his best as they helped the Penguins win back-to-back Stanley Cups.

6/16/1990

Acquired Joe Mullen from Calgary for a second-round draft pick. The right winger scored 11 goals and 10 assists in the 1991 and '92 playoffs.
12/11/1990

Acquired Larry Murphy and Peter Taglianetti from Minnesota for Jim Johnson and Chris Dahlquist. Murphy scored 11 goals and 28 assists in the '91-'92 playoffs.
3/4/1991

Acquired Ulf Samuelsson, Ron Francis, and Grant Jennings from Hartford for John Cullen, Zarley Zalapski and Jeff Parker. Francis scored 15 goals and 29 assists in the '91-'92 playoffs while Samuelsson added 3 goals and 4 assists.
2/19/1992

Acquired Rick Tocchet, Kjell Samuelsson, Ken Wregget and a conditional draft pick from Philadelphia for Mark Recchi, Brian Benning and Los Angeles' first-round choice in 1992 draft. Tocchet scored 6 goals and 13 assists in the '92 playoffs.   

More important, he has become the lightning rod for criticism from disillusioned fans and retaining him could have a profoundly negative impact on ticket sales for next season.

Although the demand for season tickets spiked last summer, many of those buyers were newcomers with no long-standing loyalty to the franchise, people who will be a much tougher sell after the Penguins' miserable performance in 2005-06.

Giving Patrick a contract to replace the one that's about to expire would tell those people that he has performed satisfactorily, an opinion few are likely to share.

Mind you, it would be absurd -- and terribly unfair -- to blame Patrick for all the Penguins' problems in recent seasons because most were rooted in the franchise's economics.

Similarly, he should not be held accountable for the nominal returns the Penguins got in the trades of high-profile players such as Kovalev and Jaromir Jagr. The decisions to deal those two -- to say nothing of Kasparaitis and Martin Straka -- had little to do with hockey.

Those moves were made because the Penguins lacked the resources to retain those players, and the limited market for their salaries gave Patrick no leverage when negotiating their departures.

Patrick can, however, be blamed for the club's terrible foray into free agency last summer. After the Penguins promised their fans for years that they would assemble a competitive team as soon as an owner-friendly labor agreement was in place, he brought in a number of players who contributed little, especially during the first half of the season, while consuming large chunks of salary-cap space.

Even more troubling was who he didn't get: Kovalev, a monster talent who craved a chance to return to the place where he played his finest hockey and the quality center the Penguins so desperately needed.

While there are conflicting stories about precisely which people in the organization were behind which offseason acquisitions -- disasters always inspire plenty of finger-pointing -- the general manager ultimately is responsible for personnel moves.

Patrick also has gotten into the habit of making high-risk coaching hires; before Michel Therrien was brought in to replace Eddie Olczyk in mid-December, the Penguins hadn't hired a coach with experience running an NHL bench since Herb Brooks replaced Kevin Constantine in 1999.

Simply putting a new nameplate on the general manager's office door won't be enough, however. Patrick's successor must have the latitude -- indeed, a mandate -- to completely overhaul the hockey side of the operation. Blow it up, and rebuild from scratch. Replace -- or keep -- anyone he wants.

There is nothing wrong with running a lean operation, but the Penguins have become too stripped-down to be effective or efficient. Patrick's approach worked well 10 or 15 years ago, but is hopelessly outdated now.

A minor, but telling, bit of evidence: There was no Internet access in the coaches' offices at Mellon Arena until the middle of this season.

The Penguins must expand their pro and amateur scouting staffs. Hire an assistant general manager who can handle contracts, salary-cap issues and other financial matters, if those are not the new general manager's forte. Bring in a second assistant coach, and perhaps a director of player personnel. Add a director of team services to deal with, among other things, the details and headaches of taking an NHL team on the road.

Expensive? Perhaps. But here's the bottom-line cost of the Penguins' current way of doing business: They haven't made the playoffs since 2001.

The list of worthy candidates to replace Patrick could be pared if, as expected, former San Jose general manager Dean Lombardi, who has been scouting for Philadelphia, is named to replace Dave Taylor in Los Angeles.

Still, at least four assistant general managers -- Peter Chiarelli (Ottawa), Ray Shero (Nashville), Jim Nill (Detroit) and Steve Tambellini (Vancouver) -- merit consideration, and Dallas scout John Weisbrod, whose resume includes a stint as general manager of the NBA's Orlando Magic, is worth talking to. So, for that matter, is Taylor, who was fired yesterday.

Regardless of who gets the job, the next general manager must have the freedom to decide whether to retain Therrien as coach.

He has two seasons left on his contract, and ownership probably wouldn't be eager to pay him to not work, but the general manager who assembles a team has to be comfortable with the guy coaching it.

Although Therrien's record mirrored that of Olczyk -- going into their regular-season finale last night at Toronto the Penguins had picked up 36 percent of the available points under Therrien after earning 35.5 percent during Olczyk's tenure -- they became more consistently competitive with him behind the bench.

That speaks well of the work done by Therrien and assistant Mike Yeo, and makes a compelling case for retaining them. Therrien's people skills and style, however, do not work in his favor.

Charming as Therrien can be, he often blurs the distinction between being demanding and demeaning when dealing with players and staff members, and verbal savagery is part of his coaching repertoire. Players say at least one teammate was reduced to near-tears after being berated by Therrien.

Therrien's heavy-handed approach seems to work with most younger players -- just as it did in the minors and junior hockey -- but it certainly doesn't inspire loyalty and might undermine the team's efforts to lure top-quality free agents. It certainly won't be a selling point with elite players.

Suspect as some of his methods can be, however, there is no missing Therrien's passion for his work. That's something that, sadly, no longer can be said of his boss.


Dave Molinari can be reached at 412-263-1144.


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