Penguins: Time to go? As disgruntled fans close wallets, a major purge looms

This is not 2013, and these Penguins were not widely regarded as a mortal lock to end up in the Stanley Cup final.

It was possible, of course, but only if a lot of variables — everything from injuries to favorable matchups in every round — broke perfectly for them.

And, while much did go right for the Penguins the past month, it didn’t prevent them from flaming out in the playoffs earlier than expected for the fifth consecutive spring.

Penguins fans weigh in on Bylsma, failure in playoffs

A number of Penguins fans weighed in today on the status of Coach Dan Bylsma and the failure of his team to advance past the second round of the NHL playoffs. (Video by Nate Guidry; 5/14/2014)

The difference is that their seven-game loss against the New York Rangers in Round 2 of the Stanley Cup playoffs — the second time in the past four years that they have squandered a 3-1 lead in a best-of-seven series — will be a life-altering event for some of those involved.

There will be firings with coach Dan Bylsma the presumed headliner on that list.

There will be trades because the makeup of this group certainly appears to be flawed.

There will be numerous other departures and additions intended to prevent a recurrence in 2015. And not only because the Penguins have only one Stanley Cup title — and a string of postseason flops — to show for having Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin on the payroll for the better part of a decade.

This is not just about hockey anymore.

It is about a fan base that is becoming increasingly sour over the Penguins’ chronic underachieving in the playoffs. Partisans previously content to offer scathing critiques on message boards and talk shows now appear to be seeking other outlets for their disposable income.

Consider the following evidence, anecdotal or otherwise, of fan disillusionment. Just in case the waves of boos that ushered the Penguins off the ice after their 2-1 loss Tuesday night in Game 7 didn’t make the point.

In December 2012, a team official said the Penguins had a season-ticket waiting list of about 9,500. Wednesday morning, their website placed that figure at “over 4,400.”

Monday afternoon, the first thing people visiting the team’s website saw was a screen touting the availability of tickets for Game 7 at Consol Energy Center. In other years, tickets to such a high-stakes game would have been as treasured — and scarce — as a winning lottery ticket.

About eight hours before game time, a secondary-market vendor sent out an email saying that tickets for Game 7 were selling for less than face value.

For a Game 7. In the home rink of a team that, not long ago, was celebrated for its ability to attract, cultivate and maintain a large and loyal following.

If the Penguins’ penchant for unraveling in the postseason isn’t enough to cause co-owners Mario Lemieux and Ron Burkle to consume antacids by the six-pack, the apparent erosion of support from the paying public surely is.

There had been whispers for a while of the Penguins going to considerable lengths to preserve the sellout streak that has reached 334. Perhaps No. 335 shouldn’t be taken for granted.

Because the emotional aftershocks of the Penguins’ elimination still are rumbling through the region and organization, it would be prudent to delay any major conclusions about personnel for at least a few days.

Clear-headed decisions about players and coaches can’t be made when frustration and anger still are percolating and, most of the time, management is wise to disregard unsolicited — and often ill-informed — advice from the media and public.

In this case, however, ignoring fans’ demands that individuals be held accountable for the Penguins’ latest warm-weather failure would be bad business.

Trying to placate the masses will necessitate, at the absolute minimum, eating the two-year contract extension Bylsma received after the Penguins’ four-game self-immolation in the Eastern Conference final against Boston in 2013.

Bylsma’s job appeared to be in jeopardy then, and giving him an extension after that sweep was a significant surprise. It was a tangible display of general manager Ray Shero’s commendable loyalty, but it also was a mistake.

Five years ago, Bylsma was a folk hero in these parts. Today, some people with their pictures on post-office walls might be more popular.

It doesn’t matter that Bylsma earned a place alongside Bob Johnson and Scott Bowman in franchise lore in 2009, when he replaced Michel Therrien in mid-February and led the Penguins on a breathtaking turnaround that culminated in the franchise’s third Stanley Cup.

Not when, despite some remarkable successes in the regular seasons that followed, Bylsma’s teams have been eliminated by lower-seeded teams in five consecutive playoffs. Especially when they often have looked bad — undisciplined, unfocused or without urgency, if not all of the above — while doing so.

It’s tough to ignore that trend. And even tougher to accept it.

Shero, who assembled this team and coaching staff, obviously has to share responsibility for its failings, and ownership presumably has been debating whether he will retain his job.

He should.

Shero can be criticized for any number of things — from the generous contract he gave defenseman Kris Letang last summer to inadequate team toughness to his inability to land a true top-six winger at the trade deadline — but he still has made more good moves than bad. (Anyone remember that Carolina paid 30 percent of Jussi Jokinen’s contract?)

Besides, much as some in the public might like to see a guillotine and conveyer belt set up outside the team offices, a mass purge — including firing the GM little more than a month before the draft — almost surely would be counter-productive.

Shero should stay.

But some of the people with whom he has been working should not. And will not.

The results demand it. So do the dollars.

MORE on the Penguins from Gene Collier: Cup-or-bust style backfires on Penguins

Dave Molinari: and Twitter @MolinariPG.

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