While the TribLIVE Radio Jagoff of the Week hammer fell on me last week (#Yellowknife), this week it came crashing down on Trib columnist-extraordinaire Rob Rossi. Rossi’s Monday column at TribLIVE.com read as more of a love letter to former Penguins and current New Jersey GM Ray Shero, whom Rossi believes the Penguins should “fear” in his new locale. That set our listeners off, who are all too recently familiar with the five straight non-Cup winning years of Shero while he was at the Pittsburgh helm.
I understand why the Pens fired Shero, as largely it was done in the name of change for a franchise that had set a Cup-or-bust standard. They busted. Ray had to go.
My gut feeling, though, is that Shero is an excellent GM and I would have loved to have seen his teams coached by someone other than Dan Bylsma here at the end … but again, after five years it was time for a clean break.
That doesn’t mean Rossi is wrong in many of his assertions, though. Let’s examine a few that Rob made on the air with us on Wednesday:
1 – The Pens’ organization lacked a plan and direction in hiring Ray Shero’s replacement.
Did they really almost hire Pierre McGuire? Was that the plan all along? Or was management seeing too much red when eyeing up Shero at his departure that they couldn’t do the proper due diligence? I think Jim Rutherford has done some good things. The recent acquisition of Carl Hagelin sure looks like a nice swap, and at least GMJR is willing to admit his mistakes (David Perron) and move on. But, the Tri-GM plan of Jason Botterill / Bill Guerin / Jim Rutherford they eventually settled on sure didn’t look like an organized, well thought-out move.
2 – The Pens are in worse shape now than when Shero left.
Sure, you could argue that some of that is Ray’s doing. Shero was in win-now mode, of course, just as Rutherford has seemingly been instructed to be. The current team is lacking young assets or future draft picks to trade for further trade-deadline help. But, part of that is Rutherford’s doing as well (see the departed Kasperi Kapanen and the first-round pick tied up in the Phil Kessel trade). If you’re going to blame Shero for trading away young talent and not re-stocking their future, well what has changed?
And if the bottom-line statement from ownership at the time of Ray’s firing was that the franchise had plateaued and needed a philosophy change to reach the peak again, then the past year-and-a-half has been a failure. At least Shero’s last team won a series, and was a win away from the Eastern Conference final. Paul Martin and Matt Niskanen made that year’s blue line palatable, and right now the team is looking like Kris Letang and his band of traveling 6th defensemen.
3 – Jim Rutherford was NOT handed a bad situation
How can a Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin, Kris Letang, and Marc Andre Fleury core be considered a bad situation?
Rutherford’s first coaching hire was a disaster, also disorganized. The Penguins have been unlucky with injuries, yes, but being forced to play with just five defensemen during last year’s stretch run was unacceptable. Perron, Christian Ehrhoff, Daniel Winnik, Steve Downie, Nick Spaling, Max Lapierre, Blake Comeau, Ian Cole, and Ben Lovejoy were not the supporting-cast correct answer last year. Time will tell in regards to Phil Kessel, Nick Bonino, Eric Fehr, Matt Cullen, Trevor Daley, etc, … but again, the defense corps is still highly questionable.
Now at the All-Star break, the Penguins have won four out of their last five games, and the team’s core is carrying them of late. Malkin’s comeback hat-trick on Saturday was a thing to behold in a win over Vancouver. Crosby scored another game-winner on Tuesday to beat New Jersey, and his eight goals scored in January is as encouraging a sign as Fleury’s star-ability on display almost every night. New coach Mike Sullivan has made some nice changes, and the squad is fun to watch again.
But are they good enough to get to the promised land?
Our guest on Wednesday’s show, TSN analyst Craig Button, doesn’t think so.
“I don’t think they’re good enough. Look at the game the other night against St. Louis. It was a competitive game, but when Ben Lovejoy gets matched up against Vladimir Tarasenko, it’s a mismatch. You’ve got no chance. It’s no different than in football when Antonio Brown is going to eat [a] player alive. It doesn’t mean that cornerback isn’t good, it’s just Antonio Brown is too good.”
“The Penguins have a premier defenseman in Kris Letang. You have Olli Maatta, and to me he isn’t a number-two. He’s pushed too far along the line, and after that you have fives, sixes, and sevens. That’s an Achilles’ heel when you try to go beat the really best teams.”
“This is where I think Mike Sullivan has made some adjustments to their team. He knows they’re going to give up some odd-man rushes and scoring chances. Marc Andre Fleury has been brilliant, a real pillar of strength. So knowing that, you can afford to take a chance instead of always being back on your heels. Mike has made that adjustment, to say ‘Marc, you’re going to asked to make some saves. We need you.’”
“The Eastern Conference is dominated by the Washington Capitals. I don’t think there’s a team in the East that can beat that team. Maybe for the Penguins getting to the Conference final would be deemed success. I’ll be absolutely shocked, barring any serious injury, if the Washington Capitals aren’t playing for the Stanley Cup come June.”
That said, this is the Washington Capitals we’re talking about. Like the Cincinnati Bengals, Chicago Cubs, and San Jose Sharks, they’ve got history to fight. This ain’t over yet.
But if Craig Button is right, it will make Rossi look a lot more right, too. And if that happens, which GM do we blame?