Penguins get extra time to make big decisions
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Let's take a good, hard look at the many knee-jerk reactions after the biggest collapse in Penguins history:
There was much not to like about coach Dan Bylsma's work in a six-game, first-round playoff loss to the Philadelphia Flyers, starting with his decision to take Sidney Crosby off the top power-play unit. You just don't do that to your captain and star player. Bylsma didn't have an answer for the Flyers' Claude Giroux, just as he didn't have one for the Montreal Canadiens' Michael Cammalleri in the 2010 playoffs. Bylsma also didn't have an answer for the Flyers power play, which was successful on a ridiculous 12-of-23 opportunities.
Perhaps worse, the Penguins were undisciplined, especially in an 8-4 loss in Game 3 when defenseman Kris Letang was thrown out for fighting, forward Craig Adams was suspended for instigating a fight in the final five minutes and wingers James Neal and Arron Asham were suspended for taking cheap shots. It was embarrassing for an organization that has pushed to eliminate gratuitous violence from the NHL.
Bylsma has developed a reputation for being a players' coach and doesn't especially like it. After he was named as the coach NHL players most wanted to play for in a February survey, he said, "That makes me shudder a little bit. I hope no one thinks we just have fun here in a playful sense. We have high expectations ... " That sounds good, but Bylsma might want to consider being more of a boss and less of a friend to his players.
It's still hard to imagine Bylsma being in serious jeopardy of losing his job. But this is hockey, remember? No sport treats it coaches with less respect. It doesn't help Bylsma that Penguins owner Mario Lemieux never had respect for his coaches. No Penguins coach has started and finished four consecutive seasons. Next season will be Bylsma's fourth full season. The team had better not stumble during the season. Certainly, it had better not go out early again in the playoffs.
No player has taken more criticism than goaltender Marc-Andre Fleury. Much of it is deserved because he was lousy except for a part of Game 4 and all of Game 5. It's hard to say which of the 26 goals he allowed was worst, but he misplayed a puck and put it into his net early in Game 3 and was beaten on a shot Sunday in Game 6 by minor league defenseman Erik Gustafsson.
But three things must be considered with Fleury. One, he had no help from his defense. Two, he had a strong regular season. And three, he's 27, just entering his prime. You want to trade him? I want to build around him.
Break up Crosby and Malkin!
Neither Crosby nor Evgeni Malkin played especially well against the Flyers. That made two disappointing postseasons in a row for them. Each had just one goal in the seven-game loss to the Canadiens in 2010.
But it's hard to see how the Penguins will get better by trading Crosby or Malkin. You don't get better by subtracting one of the top players in the world. The team needs to sign Crosby to a new deal this summer -- paying him the top amount allowed by the new collective bargaining agreement -- to keep him from becoming an unrestricted free agent after next season. Malkin is signed through the 2013-14 season so there's no rush to do a new contract with him.
It's more likely the Penguins will lose their third top center -- Jordan Staal -- who was their best player against the Flyers. Like Crosby, he could be an unrestricted free agent after next season. He said all of the right things after the Game 6 loss. "I love the guys in this room. I believe in everybody in this room." But unless Staal is willing to take less money to stay, he could be gone, becoming a salary-cap casualty. It would be a crushing loss because Staal is on his way to stardom.
Put Martin out with the trash!
Hey, I'm all for it, but it's not quite that simple. Martin is signed to a guaranteed contract for the next three years at $5 million per season with a limited no-movement clause. Good luck trying to trade him with that deal. General manager Ray Shero hasn't been wrong with many long-term deals, but the Martin signing is looking like a major blunder.
Beef up the defense!
That's also a great idea, but one that's easier said than done. The defense was horrible against the Flyers. The problem wasn't just Martin and Zbynek Michalek, who also is signed for the next three years at $4 million per season. Letang and Brooks Orpik had poor series. That couldn't happen with a defense that showed glaring breakdowns late in the regular season when the team seemed caught up in an outscore-'em style.
Letang, who is celebrating his 25th birthday today, still is going to be a star and will win at least one Norris Trophy, probably more. Orpik, 31, still has something left, although his body has taken a tremendous toll, including major abdominal surgeries the past two summers. Michalek is salvageable. Matt Niskanen had a solid year. Deryk Engelland needs to get more minutes and could be the physical presence the team desperately needs.
It's hard to imagine Shero bringing in a big-ticket free-agent defenseman unless he can trade Martin. Even then, it might not happen, depending on the salary cap in the new CBA that must be negotiated this summer. Simon Despres, Brian Strait, Robert Bortuzzo and Joe Morrow are considered top prospects in the organization. At least one has to step up next season in a big way. I'm betting on Despres.
The one bit of good news after this playoff crash?
Shero isn't a knee-jerk kind of guy. Sure, he could shock us by firing Bylsma today. But I'm guessing he will step back from the emotion of the Philadelphia series before he starts making major decisions. He will put great thought into each one.
It's April 24 and the Penguins are done for the season.
Shero certainly has a lot of unexpected time to do his work.
First Published April 24, 2012 10:31 am