As the final seconds ticked off the clock Tuesday night at the Consol Energy Center the Penguins found themselves in an all too familiar spot. For the fifth consecutive season they are packing up their lockers and heading to the golf course instead of the Stanley Cup Finals. Just as it has been at the end of four of the prior five seasons they failed to even make the Eastern Conference Finals. After the 2007-2008 season where they lost in the Cup Finals to Detroit in six games and the 2008-2009 season where they bested the Red Wings in seven to bring the cup back to Pittsburgh the city was buzzing with optimism. This was supposed to be a team that would and should compete for championships for the next decade. Instead we are looking at a team that has left its fan base shaking their heads in disappointment after another early playoff exit.
Only one thing is certain today as we enter the offseason and that is change is imminent. Nobody in the locker room or front office should feel safe. In fact, I think it is safe to say the only two people with any job security, besides Mario Lemieux and Ron Burkle, are Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin. Malkin showed flashes of brilliance in these playoffs, especially against the Rangers. In game five and home he seemed to be the only player that showed up to play. Sidney Crosby is a different story. For most of this past regular season he looked unstoppable. In the 2013-2014 season he won his second Art Ross Trophy as the leading scorer in the NHL. He is a finalist for, and should be the runaway winner of the Hart Memorial Trophy which is presented to the MVP of the league. However in the playoffs he didn’t bother to show up very often. You can’t have that from the best player on your team, in the league and in the world. One goal in 13 playoff games is pedestrian. One goal in 13 playoff games is human. That’s not Sidney Crosby, or so we like to think.
However the blame shouldn’t clearly sit on Crosby’s and his teammates shoulders. In fact, they only should be given a minor portion of it. Ray Shero has been known for years as a mastermind around the league for the way he has operated as General Manager of the Penguins. The trade deadline moves involving players such as Chris Kunitz, Pascal Dupuis, Marian Hossa, Gary Roberts, Bill Guerin, James Neal, Matt Niskanen, Jerome Iginla, Brandon Morrow, Jussi Jokinen and Douglas Murray to name a few were all seen as great acquisitions. At the time they may have been, but aside from Kunitz, Dupuis and Guerin, not one of them lifted the cup in a Pens uniform. Drafts under Shero have not fared much better. He has drafted mostly with defense in mind since he entered the organization. Of the 24 forwards he has selected in the NHL Draft since 2006 only Beau Bennett was on the roster for the playoffs this season. He was a healthy scratch for game seven against the Rangers. In total Shero has drafted 50 players since he became GM of the Penguins. Only two of them, Robert Bortuzzo, who was only playing because of an injury to Brooks Orpik, and rookie sensation Olli Maatta, were on the roster for game seven Tuesday night. The only word acceptable to describe this is unacceptable.
Along with Shero, a good bit of blame also should be directed towards Dan Bylsma. He played many forwards out of place and out of their comfort level. For instance Jerome Iginla and Beau Bennett are right wings who consistently played left wing for the Pens. Is there any question as to why those players seem to constantly under perform in a Penguins uniform? He also seemed to be more of a friend to the players than a coach. He was being paid to be their coach, not their friend. He seemed to lose his players and locker room as a consequence. He has proven to be a great regular season coach. However championships are not won during the regular season. On his resume he has a Stanley Cup, a Jack Adams award for coach of the year and he is the winningest coach in Penguins history with 252 regular season wins. The playoffs however are a different story. Yes, Bylsma does have the most playoff wins in franchise history but with 2009 aside, he and his teams have failed when it matters most. Two blown 3-1 series leads in the last 4 seasons against the Tampa Bay Lightning in 2011 and this season versus the New York Rangers are perfect examples of that failure.
The General Manager, coach and players all have one job and goal within an organization, to win games and championships. That is what they get paid to do. The problem is while performing their jobs each one of them has failed when it has mattered most. Seeing Sidney Crosby hoist Lord Stanley’s Cup at center ice in Detroit was only five years ago but it feels like ages. The team that once seemed destined to win multiple Stanley Cups should and will be ripped apart at the seams. One of the most frightening places to work in the country right now is 1001 Fifth Avenue in Pittsburgh. If your name isn’t Malkin or Crosby I suggest you sleep with one eye open for the next few weeks.
The worst part about the past five years hasn’t been the constant underachieving and disappointment by everyone involved during that time. The worst part about the past five years is now. There is a great deal finger pointing and uncertainty going on throughout the organization and city today. For the first time in years the Penguins have too many questions and not enough answers. The vision of Sid lifting the cup in Detroit is now nothing more than a distant memory. There are still many more chapters to be written for this great franchise in the years to come. I hope those chapters are filled with more joy than sorrow. The problem though is for the first time since drafting Sidney Crosby the light at the end of the tunnel seems very, very dim.