Fixing the Pens: Who Stays, Who Goes?

Pittsburgh is a city spoiled rotten for sports victory.

Before you start throwing your parking chairs at me in rage, hear me out.

Within the last 10 years, our city has experienced back-to-back Stanley Cup Finals appearances with one win, three Super Bowl appearances with two wins, and one brief brush with post-season baseball. Only cities ending in “oston” can claim better overall.

We are the City of Champions, which is something to be proud of. We have been host to some of the greatest teams in all of sporting history. Some of the greatest in their respective sports have played here, won championships here, nested here, and are citizens here. Even the most disinterested Pittsburghers, the one who claim they don’t watch sports (a rarity), turn a slight eye to the television when the big games come around and can at least name one of the current starring players on the three major teams.

We have decades of success to look back on. Since the popularization of professional organized sport, Pittsburgh has had a presence and, indeed, a winning tradition. It is to the point that we, as Pittsburghers, cannot begin to imagine what it must be like to live in Toronto or Buffalo or the disgusting Philthy cesspool on the other side of our state. We cannot conceive what it is like to truly and honestly suck in sports across the board.

This is why Pittsburgh sports fans feel entitled and are spoiled rotten to the core. We become emotionally invested in these teams and the games they play, sometimes more than the players getting paid to play them. We believe, more than most other fanbases (excluding football hooligans) that our actions as fans matter. That if we cheer loud enough and hope strong enough and wave those towels hard enough, somehow, someway, the Sporting Gods will look down upon us and grant us our much needed miracle. We’ve been given every reason to believe that this works (the shoestring tackle in the AFC championships, Johnny Cuedo dropping the ball on the mound, the last three minutes of game seven vs. the Red Wings in 2009) and we feel that our teams are the Achilles of the Sports Pantheon – favored of the Gods, nigh invulnerable, and virtually undefeatable.

We demand victory above all things. We crave it like vampires, drinking the sweet nectar of achievement to keep us eternally young and virile. Without that, we are lost. In our city, anything less than a championship team means that our guys sucked and heads must roll.

That’s why I’m here today; because I am one of your entitled and privileged number, oh my brothers and only friends. Because my vampiric lust for victory is five years starved. Because my hockey team was defeated – brutally – at the hands of a foe believed inferior in a part of the world where every foe is believed inferior. I am here today to talk about change and what needs to happen to get our beloved Penguins back to the way they should be. Heads will roll. Heads must roll. If there’s anything we Pittsburgh sports fans are good at, it’s pointing fingers and assessing blame when our teams lose.

This team was supposed to be a dynasty – The Crosby/Malkin Dynasty – and we have been left sorely disappointed.

That said, how long should the line for the guillotine be this off-season? Like the French Revolution, we the people will determine which nobles get the chop and which get to live another day. This is only my humblest of opinions. You’re welcome to disagree.

We will look at my top three choices for who goes, who’s on the fence, and who stays for sure.

Who Goes?

Dan Bylsma
Let me be perfectly clear: I have nothing but the utmost respect for Coach Disco. He deserved all the praise he ever got and he led this team out of the darkness to ultimate glory when things seemed to be most dire in the early-year winter months of 2009.
That said, Dan has a lot to answer for.
Coach Disco has been the focal point of the sports pundits’ rage since the Stanley Cup hangover of 2010. His inability to change his team’s style when utility cried out for it has been his major downfall. His distaste for playing the line matchup game is a close second.
Disco did not properly utilize his team and, when shake-ups were necessary and change was required, refused to bow to the pressure of the media, the fanbase, and the game itself. His mentality was a stubborn one. He rammed into a brick wall, time and time again, hoping that the wall would eventually yield to his sheer will and create a door. He wanted the game to fold to his line combinations rather than adjusting more than on-the-fly when a late-game rally was needed.
He played players where they shouldn’t have been played, as evidenced by last summer when he took Jarome Iginla and made him look like a lost pee-wee on NHL ice by making him play on the opposite-side wing from that which had made him such a hot commodity in the first place. The entire reason Iginla was acquired was flushed and made a superstar into a complete bust causing him not to even think about resigning with our team in the off-season.
He became the players’ friend rather than their boss which meant that, when the time came for a reprimand or for the flexing of nuts, he couldn’t do it with any authority. He could yell and scream and I’m sure he did from time to time, but a coach is supposed to be more of a boss than a friend. Players should feel accountable for their actions, but getting criticized by your friend can cause real emotional problems.
Being a friend to the players destroys the professional dynamic and makes everything personal. That benching, that bag skate after a horror show, that call out in the locker room, becomes personal and leads to bigger issues, which I honestly believe what had Sid giving less than a shit and Geno more fired up during these playoffs. This negative emotion has been palpable for the last two or three years.
A coach is supposed to be a figure of authority; someone that these multi-million dollar players should respect if not outright fear. Dan was a breath of fresh air to them after the reign of Iron Mike Therrien, who was too much of a disciplinarian. Dan, however, was too lax in the end.
This was as evident on the Pens bench as it was on Team USA’s this past winter.
His confidence and faith in the “little guys” as many in the media had cited caused potentially bigger guns to go unutilized and also caused many players to be retained far beyond their expiration date. I understand that this is also in part due to the General Manager. We’ll get to that later.

James Neal
He was once The Real Deal. I admit, I was blinded by the points totals. I was convinced by the general skill, the fast release, the fit with Malkin. I was content with James Neal.
Then, he kneed Brad Marchand in the head last season.
I fought against the media hype and all the people who claimed James Neal was a dirty player. I called for his innocence during replay after replay, saying that he was just skating up ice and didn’t see Marchand lying there.
But, the seed was planted.
As reality crept in, I saw the purpose in that knee. I saw the ever-so-slight acknowledgement on Neal’s face as he did it. I still denied it. People started to cite past targeting of heads and sneaky dirty plays. I still denied it.
Then, as I watched this season, I finally acknowledged it: James Neal is one of the dirtier players in the game.
Not the dirtiest by far, but certainly willing to try to sneak in that extra hit. He’s a pest, but not in a Jarkko Ruutu/Matt Cooke “fun yet aggrivating” kind of way. His pestiness is a bit more subtle and a lot more malicious. His big concussion-inducing high-elbow hits are just as resounding.
James Neal this post-season contributed heavily to the opposing team’s power play opportunities by amassing a total of 24 penalty minutes, 12 of those in Game Six vs. the Rangers alone. Over the course of 13 games, he gave the opposition a little more than a period’s worth of extra-man time which, as of last night, ranks him 10th in the post season in PIM. Yes, he was also ranked 2nd for total shots (49), but only converted on two of those attempts with two helpers for four total points in those two rounds.
Neal drastically underperformed and, yes, most of the team did just the same however James Neal is no longer the super-mega-star he was in 2012, his career year. He is a frustrated mid-carder who benefitted heavily from being on Malkin’s line and has since cooled way down.
While he is certainly not solely to blame for the Pens post-season flop, he is potentially the biggest piece of trade bait available within our arsenal. Whether Shero stays or not (again, we’ll get to that later), I think James Neal is gone. What the return could be is left unknown.

Brooks Orpik
This one is more of an unfortunate truth. No fingers can be pointed at Brooks for the post-season problems, but none-the-less, he will be gone.
Last night, rumors began to stir amongst the twitter-verse that Brooks was spotted limping around the Pens locker room and it was overheard that the injury he suffered was one which could potentially end his career, at least with the Penguins.
His contract is up and he will be eligible for free agency this summer. While it will pain me to lose a character guy and a solid defensive defenseman like Brooksy, the sad fact is that we will not pay him what he will need to stay in town, especially not if he is hurt.
I will miss Brooks and all the Free Candy he handed out.

There will undoubtedly be other casualties. These three are assured.

On the Fence

Ray Shero
Yes. This man is an absolute wizard. The certified Jedi Knight of the trade deadline. The Jesus Christ of Free Agency. Responsible for some of the biggest blockbuster trades and acquisitions in the history of this organization.
And, now it’s time for him to say goodbye.
Ray brought us such hits as the Marian Hossa deal, in which the “throw-in” player of Pascal Dupuis ended up being the mainstay. He proved that a turd could be polished and traded for diamonds by dealing Alex “the most worthless defenseman ever” Goligoski to the Stars for James Neal and Matt Niskanen. At a deadline when prospects were slim and it seemed nothing would happen, he made a grab for Jarome Iginla and got it.
While I am a card-carrying member of the Church of Shero, Ray’s time with the team may have run its course.
Pundits are predicting the axe based on poor drafts. I can’t fault them there. We have been stacking up a young defensive core for years without any true merit to the big-league squad aside from the first-half of this season in Olli Maata. As a result, offensive depth has suffered. None of the guys in Wilkes-Barre are capable of filling a bottom-six let alone a top-six spot.
The thought was that these young, skilled defensemen would someday pay dividends and serve as trade bait to build a squad of known quantities around Sid and Geno. The problem with this theory is that the better type of players we would want will not be easily given up by their teams for defensive prospects alone if at all. We could leverage them to potentially pry players from the hands of lesser teams, but, most teams will not deal the caliber forward the Pens need for a handful of magic beans that could one day sprout into a defensive core for their team.
I believe that, behind the scenes, though ownership thought that the two were inexorably tethered to each other via Disco’s two-year extension meeting neatly with the end of Ray’s contract, I think Ray and Disco didn’t do well in the communications department. At least, not beyond being bros. Ray’s choices this year seemed to be more in-line with Disco’s “type of player” than years past but I still don’t think Ray ever truly understood Disco’s coaching style.
This was most evident in the Iginla deal as Shero had done the impossible in snagging the superstar only to have Disco completely misuse this resource. This should not go down as any kind of bad mark on the record of Ray, as the deal done was incredible. Any other coach would have made Ray look like a God for adding a weapon like Iggy to an already formidable line-up. Of course, any other coach would have played Iggy on his proper wing and potentially made it past the Conference Finals.
So, Ray is on the fence. I think the Pens give him one more year, sans Disco, to see what talent he can pull for potentially better development or better fit with different coaching. In the end, Ray is like the hardware store and Disco is a carpenter. Ray only supplies the building materials, it’s more up to Disco to determine what to do with them. Sometimes you wind up with a kick-ass treehouse, sometimes you wind up with a 6th grade shop project. We need a better carpenter.

Olli Maata
As I mentioned during the Shero bit, Olli Maata, at first glance, seemed like a genius move. For the first half of the season, especially while our defensive core was in disrepair, the kid stepped it up. We decided to hang on to him knowing that the terms of his contract demanded that he play lest he be sent back to Major Juniors – such is the problem with his age and terms.
Olli proved himself to be a decent playmaker most of the time; often jumping up on the rush, contributing a good share of assists and even goals, and caught himself a hot streak. He was an exceptionally good two-way defenseman this regular season. Keeping him seemed like the right thing to do.
Post-season, it all disappeared.
Maata, especially noticeable in the back half of the Rangers series, appeared lazy, confused, pressured… I dunno, man, something. He was made to look like a rookie, by his own hand or by the more professional hands that surrounded him.
I suppose we could see how he continues to mature, however, I believe we’ll be doing so at least from the safe distance of Wilkes-Barre. He might prove to be an answer next year as a mid-season call up, but, with potential defensive departures, he may be a best option available for the big league squad.
I believe that Olli is trade bait next season. Maybe not at the outset but surely at the deadline. This is one of those defensive prospects that could pay dividends though, hopefully, he won’t become another Marcus Naslund and really break out before we gave him a chance.

The Rest of the Coaching Staff
As goes Disco, should the rest of the staff be ousted as well? Coaches Granato, Rierden, and Martin could be brought to task just as much as their boss and, if the Pens are indeed looking to tempt a strong, established coach from a well-established team (as I’ve heard whispers of), the rest of the staff seems likely to be on the block as said well-established coach may want to pull in his own staff.
While I like to think that the rest of the coaches aren’t as much of a problem as Disco (and, likely, don’t have the same declining relationship with the team’s superstars as portrayed in recent media revelations), when you treat a cancer, it’s sometimes hard to excise a tumor without removing the organ entirely.
I very much like these three and would hate to see them go. I would like the chance to see Martin given more reign over the team, as it has been said that he was largely discredited by Bylsma. If any of them go, Martin seems the most likely as Bylsma seems to have caused him to “lose the room”. I suppose we’ll see as things progress.

Who Stays?

The Big Stars
Sid, Geno, Flower, Kuni, Fleury, Tanger.
There’s no reason to panic with the big six. Sure, everyone on this list had a sub-par post-season except Fleury (who was the only reason they stayed past Round 1), but damn near the entire team had a sub-par post season.
This is the core around which a new coach/GM tandem will build the future and all of these guys have long-term deals. There are honestly no deals I could see which would get anything near equal return for any of these guys. Cap dumping isn’t even an excuse.
Fleury played out of his mind this post-season and I don’t think that can be said enough. This was not the head-case MAF who barely showed up in last year’s failed playoff. The Flower was planted strong and would have been a Conn-Smythe candidate if he had a team in front of him who could have carried him to the finals.
I believe with new leadership (specifically, a new coach, one who is more boss than friend), these guys will light up and become the core that they once were. Keep what works, shed what doesn’t, and each of these guys work.

Jussi Jokinen
If you could find a harder working guy on the Pens during the post season who wasn’t one listed above, I’d like to know who it was.
Jussi has really blossomed this year. It may be a late-career rally, but I think we should let him ride this wave until it crashes. Could be next season, who knows, but every effort should be made to retain him when he hits free agency.

The PK
Specifically: Adams, Goc, Gibbons.
When they were on, they were generating short-handed breaks like crazy, blocking shots, and doing their best to stifle every conceivable shot while being down a man. I loved 90% of what I saw from these guys. They are strong and, if left together, would be half of an incredible special teams package in the season to come.

Funny, isn’t it, how there are always more words for condemnation than praise?

That’s my take. This closing is a bit abbreviated because I want to get my views out before any big moves are made (especially in the Head Coach department). As I write, rumors swirl of ownerships displeasure with Bylsma and the axe seems to be hovering over Shero as well.

My voice is just one in a chorus and I don’t expect it to be abided by in this instance but I do believe I’m on the money with most of this commentary.

I told you I would do it and it’s done.

Keep fighting the good fight.

—end transmission—

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