My money is on Michel Therrien. It's been on Therrien since he took the Penguins coaching job in December 2005 and immediately showed he wasn't afraid to rattle the cages to shake the losers he inherited out of their country club ways. No matter what, the players were going to do it Therrien's way. It's no coincidence they soon turned into winners, big winners, nearly Stanley Cup winners last season.
Now, I'm betting Therrien will break one of the most astonishing records in Pittsburgh sports history.
I'm betting Therrien will become the first coach in Penguins history -- 41 years and counting -- to start and finish four consecutive seasons.
Yes, I know I'm going far out on a limb.
"I'm halfway there," Therrien said late last season, grinning.
The topic really wasn't so funny at the time. The odds still seemed very much against Therrien, even though the Penguins had remarkable success in his first two full seasons. There was widespread speculation that the team needed to win at least a round or two in the playoffs for him to keep his job.
It wasn't hard to believe considering the Penguins' abysmal history with coaches. Like most NHL teams, they have treated their coaches with little respect. It's a hockey thing, you know? Chuck Noll would have lasted three seasons with the Penguins, if that. Bill Cowher might have made two. The Steelers the Penguins are not.
Eddie Johnston nearly had a four-year run but was replaced late in the 1996-97 season by general manager Craig Patrick. In Patrick's nearly 17 years with the team, he had nine coaches, not counting the two stints he did behind the bench himself. That qualifies as abysmal, doesn't it?
That's why it was so refreshing to see Therrien get a big new contract last week. A year ago, after he had led the Penguins to a 47-point improvement and their first playoff spot in six years, general manager Ray Shero gave him just a one-year extension. This time, after the team made it to the Cup final, Shero tore up the one year remaining on Therrien's contract and gave him three years at around $1 million per season.
Now, finally, the odds are on Therrien's side. He's still not a lock to get through the next two seasons; there will be extraordinary pressure on him and the team considering the expectations the run to the Cup final generated. But at least he has a shot because of the commitment from management.
Talk about a pleasant surprise.
There were reports in the Canadian press after last season that Therrien was hated in his locker room. The stories mentioned defenseman Brooks Orpik and young center Jordan Staal as being anti-Therrien. Team owner Mario Lemieux also was listed.
That speculation also was easy to believe, especially the Lemieux inclusion. I'm not sure he has ever met a coach he respected. That can be a problem for truly great athletes.
But any animosity toward Therrien -- real or otherwise -- didn't stop Shero from doing the right thing, although it's safe to say Lemieux signed off on Therrien's new contract.
Shero, who has done a terrific job since replacing Patrick, is all about rewarding excellence. How could Shero look in the mirror if he didn't reward Therrien?
I understand Therrien is in a nice spot. His team is loaded with great young talent. It also helps that Sidney Crosby has his back. When the captain and best player buys into your system and is the team's hardest worker, the other players have little choice but to follow.
But Therrien also has contributed greatly to the Penguins' success. It's not just the discipline he instilled in a team that had been soft. It's the way he has demanded and received defensive accountability, no easy task with a lot of star players. Those are two huge reasons the Penguins played for the Cup last season and will be a strong contender next season.
It should be noted that the players Therrien has treated with the toughest love have become better players. Orpik might not like the boss much, but he's at the top of that list. So are goaltender Marc-Andre Fleury and, to a lesser extent, defenseman Ryan Whitney.
Isn't coaching supposed to be about making your players better?
It also should be pointed out that Orpik and Fleury signed big deals with the Penguins this summer, Orpik turning down more as a free agent and Fleury signing for seven years. Center Evgeni Malkin, who reportedly wasn't happy with Therrien about his use on the power play during the playoffs, also took less to sign a new five-year contract.
I'm thinking the players like playing here, like winning and enjoy their teammates, sure. But I'm also thinking they've come to grips with playing for Therrien and maybe even realize he's helped them to become better players on a better team.
Orpik said it best when he said he doesn't have to love his coach to play hard and play well for him.
The Penguins play hard and play well for Therrien.
His new contract is a great thing for the franchise.
Ron Cook can be reached at email@example.com .