Cook: Future at stake for many Penguins tonight in Boston


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Nothing much figures to be at stake tonight when the Penguins skate on to the TD Garden ice in Boston for Game 3 of an Eastern Conference final that has started so terribly wrong.

Nothing more than the futures of Dan Bylsma, Marc-Andre Fleury, Evgeni Malkin, Kris Letang, Brooks Orpik, Chris Kunitz, Pascal Dupuis, Matt Cooke, Craig Adams, Jarome Iginla, Brenden Morrow and Douglas Murray.

Not to sensationalize.

Let me make one point clear right here: The Penguins still can win the series against the Boston Bruins despite losing the first two games at home. As Bylsma quickly pointed out after the awful 6-1 loss Monday night in Game 2, the team had winning streaks of 15, seven and five games this season. Never count out Sidney Crosby, even though he was lousy in the first two games. Never count out Malkin, even though he hasn't had a point in four of the past five playoff games. Never count out Letang, even though he was on the ice for four Boston goals Monday night and is a minus-5 in the series. Yes, the goaltending situation is frightful. I say go with Fleury tonight, although it's hard to have a lot of faith in him. But he is the franchise goalie, at least for now. He's good enough to get hot and win four games.

It's not as if the Bruins can't stumble. They led the Toronto Maple Leafs, 3-1, in their first-round playoff series before losing Games 5 and 6. Only a miraculous third-period climb out of a 4-1 crater saved them in their 5-4 overtime win in Game 7. They can be had.

But let's assume the worst. Let's assume the overwhelming odds against the Penguins hold and the Bruins win the series. What happens then? Only Crosby will be safe. That will be especially true if the Penguins continue to put up little or no fight and go out in four or five games.

Bylsma could be fired. These Penguins are built to win the Stanley Cup. Bylsma had better get them to at least the final. If they lose to the Bruins, they will be 3-4 in playoff series under him since they won the Cup in 2009. Management might decide it needs a tougher coach. Bylsma has been widely criticized the past few days for acquiescing to Crosby's wishes of playing with Kunitz instead of Iginla, even though Iginla could play his preferred right wing with Crosby. It didn't seem like a problem when the Penguins averaged 4.27 goals per game in the series against the New York Islanders and Ottawa Senators. It's a big problem now that they've scored just one goal in two games against the Bruins. Bylsma promised lineup and line changes tonight. We'll see.

Fleury also could go. He's signed for two more seasons at $5 million per year. If Bylsma starts backup Tomas Vokoun tonight, it will be pretty obvious that Fleury no longer fits into the long-range plans. If Fleury plays tonight and fails, management could reach that same decision. He will be under extraordinary pressure if Bylsma gives him the start.

Delicate personnel decisions would have to be made about Malkin and Letang. Each is signed through next season, Malkin at $8.7 million and Letang at $3.5 million. This summer is when the Penguins need to decide if they want to do long-term deals with them. Do they continue to pay Malkin at least $8.7 million per year as they do Crosby? Or do they decide the two-superstar-model no longer works? This would be four years in a row without a Cup for Crosby and Malkin.

Speculation has Letang doubling his salary in his next contract. The Penguins must decide if his extraordinary offensive talent is worth his many defensive lapses. He had a big one in the Game 2 loss to the Bruins when his failed clearing pass led to Boston's second goal.

Orpik and Kunitz also are signed through next season at $3.75 million and $3,725,000, respectively. Do the Penguins give them big, new deals?

Then, there are the unrestricted free agents. They will make for hard decisions for general manager Ray Shero even if the NHL salary cap wasn't decreasing from $70.2 million this season to $64.3 million next season. Dupuis has been the biggest bargain in sports this season at $1.5 million and is in line for a huge raise. Cooke ($1.8 million) and Adams ($675,000) have been big parts of the team's success. Iginla, Morrow and Murray aren't likely to be back.

The truth should be obvious to Bylsma and the Penguins, right? If they want to stay largely together next season, they had better figure out a way to beat the Bruins.

mobilehome - roncook

Ron Cook: rcook@post-gazette.com. Ron Cook can be heard on the "Vinnie and Cook" show weekdays from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. on 93.7 The Fan. First Published June 5, 2013 4:45 AM


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