Ron Cook: Signing adds to expectations

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As news goes, the Michel Therrien contract extension with the Penguins yesterday ranks well below the long-term signings of Sidney Crosby and Ryan Whitney, the return of Gary Roberts and the free-agent acquisitions of Darryl Sydor and Petr Sykora. But that doesn't mean it isn't a big deal. It made for another marvelous day for a franchise that has a lot of us talking hockey, the playoffs and even the Stanley Cup in the hot, humid dog days of July.

I know, it really is hard to believe.

It says something about Penguins general manager Ray Shero and his open mind that he did a one-year extension with Therrien, the coach he inherited when he took the job in May 2006. Therrien wasn't just any coach; he had a reputation for being tough and old school, a man who was brutally hard on young players and often despised by veterans. It could have made for a difficult situation if not for Shero's willingness to give Therrien a chance.

It says something more about Therrien that he was able to win Shero over. You know how you become a general manager's guy? You win games. Therrien did that for Shero last season, leading the Penguins to a shocking 105-point season, a 47-point improvement from 2005-06. The players -- young and old -- bought into his discipline and structure. The team gave up 246 goals -- 70 fewer than the year before -- without doing harm to its offense. It scored 277 goals, third-most in the NHL. It made the playoffs for the first time in six years.

"This [extension] wasn't a tough decision for me," Shero said.

Therrien still was tough on his young players but picked his spots better. He was very public with his demands of goaltender Marc-Andre Fleury, threatening to send him to the minors during training camp and then benching him briefly in February. Fleury responded by being the Penguins' best player against Ottawa in the playoffs, better even than the great Crosby. Therrien took a much different approach with Evgeni Malkin, quietly calling him into his office during a trip to Atlanta in December and telling him through interpreter Sergei Gonchar that he expected so much more from him. Malkin went on to win the Calder Trophy as the NHL's rookie of the year.

Along the way, Therrien showed a kinder, gentler side. That was most evident during the dads' weekend trip to Dallas and Phoenix in January, when he made sure he played everybody on the roster so the proud fathers, some of whom came from halfway around the world, could watch their sons. It will be evident again Aug. 2, when he will be the host for a team golf outing and dinner in Montreal, his offseason home. He did it last year for players who lived in the area, but, at Crosby's suggestion, invited the entire team this time. Those are gestures even the veterans can appreciate.

"We all change with the years," Therrien said over the phone yesterday between trips to a Montreal hospital, where his recently widowed mother, Rachel, is being treated for a blood pressure problem. "But the one thing I won't lose is my passion for winning, my passion for the way I think a team should be run. I'll keep demanding the same work ethic. You need discipline on and off the ice if you want to be a champion."

Roberts wouldn't have re-signed with the Penguins if he disliked Therrien. Sydor and Sykora wouldn't have signed here if they feared playing for Therrien. As much fun as it will be for them to play with Crosby, it's not worth being miserable.

"There's a way to be demanding as a coach, but also fair. I think Michel does a good job with that," Shero said.

Said an appreciative Therrien, "Ray understands my profession." Shero should; he's the son of longtime NHL coach Fred Shero.

Of course, none of that means Therrien will be the Penguins' coach five years from now or three years from now or even one year from now. The NHL is notorious for routinely discarding coaches, which explains why Shero gave Therrien just the one extra year. Shero's predecessor, Craig Patrick, hired seven coaches after he made the poor choice to allow Scotty Bowman to leave after the 1992-93 season. He fired poor Ivan Hlinka just four games into the 2001-02 season. The New Jersey Devils -- one of the league's most successful franchises -- just hired their 14th coach in 26 seasons. General manager Lou Lamoriello fired Claude Julien with three games to go last season even though Julien had the team in first place.

Therrien will be under extraordinary pressure in the coming season because the expectations on the Penguins have increased dramatically, both inside and out of the organization. Crosby and the rest haven't won a playoff series yet, but no one around the franchise is all that hesitant to say the team will be a Cup contender. You bet that makes for extraordinary pressure.

"Absolutely not," Therrien said when asked if the expectations frighten him.

"Last season was a huge step for us. Guys believe in what we're doing. The confidence is there with these players. But we know we can't live in the past. We've got to stay focused. We have a clear vision with our team."

And to think it's only July 17.

"I can't wait for the season to start," Therrien gushed.

The man joins a big crowd there.

Peter Diana, Post-Gazette
Penguins coach Michel Therrien will be under extraordinary pressure in the coming season because the expectations on the Penguins have increased dramatically.
Click photo for larger image.


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