Cook: Penguins GM's future in lockstep with coach's

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Penguins general manager Ray Shero already blew it with one contract extension for his coach. In July 2008, a little more than a month after the team lost to the Detroit Red Wings in the Stanley Cup final, he tore up Michel Therrien's deal, which had one year left, and gave him a new three-year contract with a big raise. He fired Therrien seven months later.

This is instructive for two reasons:

One, Penguins coach Dan Bylsma probably shouldn't get too comfortable after agreeing Wednesday to a two-year contract extension through the 2015-16 season. He and his family might be set financially for life, but there's no guarantee he will last for the length of the deal. Penguins owners Ron Burkle and Mario Lemieux are committed to winning, not just regular-season games but Cup titles. If they were willing to eat one sizable coaching contract, they will do it again if necessary.

And two, no general manager can be wrong twice when it comes to his coach. Clearly, Shero has tied his future to Bylsma. Each is signed through 2015-16. If Bylsma fails and is fired, Shero also must go. There can be no third chance for him.

Shero seemed perfectly fine with that Wednesday after aggravating many in the Penguins' demanding fan base by giving Bylsma, who was widely blamed for the team being swept last week by the Boston Bruins in the Eastern Conference final, a contract extension.

"It's important to me making a statement that I believe in Dan Bylsma. I believe in our coaching staff," Shero said.

"Public sentiment sometimes is not kind. Change the coach is always the thing to do. Maybe it's not. I have a very good coach that I want to work with and continue to lead this team. I want to reward him with an extension. That shows him and probably people that he's my coach and I believe in him."

There is something to say for coaching stability. Ask the Steelers. It's not as if Bylsma deserved to be fired. There was little wrong with his strategy against the Bruins. "I believe our players are prepared. They have a plan," Shero said. The problem in the Boston series was that Bylsma's stars let him down. Sidney Crosby. Evgeni Malkin. Kris Letang. James Neal. All of 'em. They came up so small. No coach can win when his best players wilt under the bright lights.

Once Shero decided to keep Bylsma, the team had to give Bylsma an extension. He had one year left on his contract. No one wants a coach in that situation. If the players are to believe in their boss, they have to know management does. Otherwise, there is chaos.

Shero said Burkle and Lemieux were "100 percent supportive" of the Bylsma extension. That shouldn't be a surprise, although Lemieux never has had much use for coaches. He never cared if they were changed as often as he changes his socks. But Burkle and Lemieux believe in Shero. They have since his decision to fire Therrien and replace him with Bylsma in February 2009, led the Penguins to the Cup that June.

But that doesn't mean that Shero doesn't have to be right about Bylsma this time. Burkle and Lemieux might lose money if Bylsma fails, but they won't lose ownership. It will be Shero who pays the biggest price.

Of course, Shero and Bylsma can't win alone. They will need help from many of the players who so badly let them down in the Boston series. Shero talked as if he plans on signing Malkin and Letang to new long-term contracts instead of trading one or the other this summer for salary-cap reasons. "They're both under contract for another year," Shero said. "They're not going anywhere."

Neither, apparently, is goaltender Marc-Andre Fleury.

Shero and Bylsma said Fleury will be the Penguins' No. 1 netminder next season despite losing the job to backup Tomas Vokoun in these playoffs. "I'm not getting rid of Marc-Andre Fleury," Shero said. "It's difficult to replace 40 wins a year. I can't replace that."

Shero compared the Fleury situation to those in the past of Neal, Paul Martin and Matt Cooke, all of whom overcame struggles during their career with the Penguins to be outstanding players. "You try to work with people to make them better," Shero said. "The faith I have in Marc-Andre Fleury hasn't waned. I look forward to having him back."

Sticking with Fleury is the right call as long as his mind is right. Fleury said Sunday he wanted to stay with the Penguins, but it's still possible he could ask for a trade and a fresh start. Shero acknowledged that. But Shero and Bylsma said Fleury was a great teammate after his benching and supported Vokoun. Bylsma said Fleury "understood" why Vokoun was playing.

We'll see.

No one player will determine success or failure for Shero, Bylsma and the Penguins more than Fleury if he's the goaltender. Still, Shero must do some great work to make sure he continues to put a winning team around him.

"Honestly, I'm looking forward to it," Shero said, promising to do his best to make sure the Penguins "entertain the fans" -- the team has had 286 consecutive home sellouts -- and live up to their mission statement of "competing every year for the Stanley Cup ...

"I believe we have a really good hockey team. We've been to the conference finals three times in the past six years. We won the Cup. I want to get back there."

Shero is betting on Bylsma being the right coach to lead the way.

Betting his future on it.

"It's important to me making a statement that I believe in Dan Bylsma. I believe in our coaching staff."

-- Ray Shero

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.


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