Ron Cook: Penguins coaching search in shambles



Maybe the story will have a wonderful ending. Maybe Penguins captain Sidney Crosby will hoist the Stanley Cup next June and pose for happy pictures with owner Mario Lemieux, general manager Jim Rutherford and a still-to-be-named coach. Maybe Rutherford will get the last laugh, if you will.

Or maybe not.

Right now, it appears as if Rutherford, 2½ weeks into the job, doesn't have a clue what he's doing. Even worse, it looks as if everyone in the team's management has no clue.

It's stunning, the long, hard fall taken by the Penguins front office since it fired highly-regarded general manager Ray Shero May 16, sloppily dismissed coach Dan Bylsma three weeks later, hired Rutherford, a retread from the Carolina Hurricanes, and was turned down by its first choice to be the new coach. We are talking about an organization that had been regarded as the best in hockey, one of the best in sports. People wanted to work for Lemieux and co-owner Ron Burkle because they treated their employees with such class. Crosby took less money to stay here. Other players wanted to come here to play with Crosby and Evgeni Malkin because they believed it gave them their best chance to win a Cup.

Now the Penguins have to settle for Rutherford, who failed late in his long, distinguished career with the Hurricanes and was pushed aside for new general manager Ron Francis?

And Rutherford can't find a coach after reportedly being turned down Friday by Calder Cup-winning coach Willie Desjardins of the American Hockey League's Texas Stars?

People around hockey are laughing at the Penguins. It's as if the organization has become a joke.

Rutherford brought on much of the ridicule when he announced Thursday that he had found his coach, then failed to do a contract with him. Apparently, Desjardins believes the Vancouver Canucks job is a better one and will take that position this week, according to TSN. That leaves Rutherford to restart the search for his man today, looking once more at candidates he interviewed and didn't deem worthy in the first place and even looking at a new candidate or two. That's a lousy way of going about things, isn't it? Doesn't Management 101 teach you to interview all of the potential candidates before reaching your top choice and then actually doing a deal with the new man before announcing it publicly?

According to reports, which aren't always true as evidenced by the premature news of Bylsma's firing three weeks before it happened, the Penguins want their next coach to take a short-term deal, perhaps two years. Lemieux and Burkle must be getting tired of paying a fired coach to do nothing. They will have to pay Bylsma $2 million a year for the next two seasons if he doesn't take another coaching job. They had to pay off Michel Therrien for 2½ seasons before Bylsma.

But it's understandable why any promising coach would turn and run from a two-year offer from the Penguins. He knows he is being hired by Rutherford, who has said he doesn't expect to keep his job for more than two or three years. What happens when the next general manager comes in and wants to bring his own coach? The Penguins have to make at least a three-year offer to get a good coach for next season.

There also is the Mike Babcock factor to consider for the next coach. Babcock, the Detroit Red Wings coach, is going into the final season of his contract and will be in much demand next June. He would be a great fit for the Penguins. He has coached Crosby on Team Canada in each of the past two Olympics and together they won two gold medals. That doesn't put the Penguins coach next season in a very good spot. He might have to win the Cup to keep Lemieux and Burkle from going after Babcock.

There would be great pressure on the next Penguins coach even if Babcock were not going to be out there. Shero and Bylsma were fired because management said the team "underachieved" in the playoffs for five consecutive years even though it went to the Eastern Conference final two years ago and made the second round this past season. Time is ticking on the Crosby-Malkin era. The Penguins are built to win now. They had better win now.

Maybe that's what will happen.

Maybe Rutherford, despite failing to get his Carolina team in the playoffs in any of the past five seasons, will make great personnel decisions for a Penguins team that is hard against the salary cap. A major trade figures to be coming soon, perhaps involving James Neal or Kris Letang. There might be many major deals and free-agent losses before next season.

Maybe the new coach will come in and stand up strong to the pressure. Maybe he will get through to Crosby and help him to become as good in the postseason as he is in the regular season. Maybe he will make the team tougher and more disciplined than Bylsma ever did.

Maybe the Penguins really will be the Stanley Cup champions of 2015.

Can't you just picture Crosby, Lemieux, Rutherford and the coach kissing the Cup?

I know, I can't, either.

Ron Cook: rcook@post-gazette.com. Ron Cook can be heard on the "Cook and Poni" show weekdays from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. on 93.7 The Fan.


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