Greetings, hockey fans. My mom is in the hospital, and she’s receiving pain medication, which is making her sleep a lot. So, this is giving me a lot of free time while sitting here at AGH. Instead of taking a nap or watching another episode of Judge Judy – thought about visiting Neil Walker after his appendectomy, but figured I wouldn’t be welcome – I figured I’d write something about the hockey team. I was going to write a list of 10 questions facing the Penguins this summer. Then, it occurred to me, there are far more than 10 questions. So, here are the first 25 questions I mustered. Just for fun, we’ll explore for answers as well.
1. Would the Penguins take John Hynes seriously as their head coach?
My partner in crime on the Penguins beat, Rob Rossi, reported on Monday that Hynes is being interviewed for the gig. Nothing wrong with this. The man is clearly a terrific coach, annually taking ordinary rosters and making playoff runs in the AHL. I’ve yet to speak with anyone who thought Hynes was anything but a terrific coach. A well liked but disciplined coach, Hynes is a can’t-miss NHL prospect. So, the Penguins would be foolish to ignore him. That said, do we wonder if Hynes would work with this collection of Penguins? Will the galaxy of superstars listen to a guy who has never coached in the NHL? And would Hynes’ preference for defense first, while something that the Penguins could probably use, mesh with the Penguins’ array of talent? Remember, new general manager Jim Rutherford said last week that any new coach will need to adapt to the reality that the Penguins are more talented than most teams. In other words, Rutherford sounds interested in more of an offensive mind to coach his stars. That probably isn’t Hynes. And yet, the guy is such a good coach. Perhaps he gets promoted to an assistant at the NHL level? Just a thought.
2. So, what really is going on with Tony Granato and Todd Reirden?
One must assume that the new coach, whoever that may be, will have full control in naming his assistant coaches. So, Granato and Reirden are very much in limbo. This is unfortunate, because you’ll never meet two finer men than Granato and Reirden, who might be the two most popular people in the Penguins organization. They aren’t bad coaches, either. In fact, they’re pretty good. Granato is in charge of the penalty killing unit, which always ranks in the top 10, sometimes higher. He works with the forwards a good bit. The Penguins have really productive forwards, so it’s hard to find anything Granato has done wrong. Reirden has been just as impressive. He worked extensively with Matt Niskanen and Paul Martin during the past few years. How did that turn out? Pretty darn well, I’d say. He also has done wonderful work with 19-year-old Olli Maatta. He’s developed Robert Bortuzzi into a strong NHL defenseman. It’s difficult to find fault with anything these two have done, which will make decisions about them later this summer quite interesting.
3. Will Mike Bales be back?
It would seem borderline crazy for the Penguins to let goaltender coach Mike Bales depart the organization. One must understand that, while Gilles Meloche is a wonderful human being and was always a fine confidant for Marc-Andre Fleury, he was never really a coach. He didn’t watch much video, didn’t work much on Fleury’s technique. The Penguins took too long in finding someone like Bales for Fleury, who is a marvelous athlete but who badly needed a coach to help him with positioning, technique and other fine parts of the game. Bales is dynamite. Just a real professional who made a legitimate difference this season. Fleury loves him. Jeff Zatkoff does, too. I can’t think of one reason why the Penguins wouldn’t bring this guy back.
4. Will a “bad cop” coach be hired?
This would seem like a good idea. Dan Bylsma? Nice guy. Tony Granato? Nice guy. Todd Reirden? Nice guy. Jacques Martin? Nice guy. Mike Bales? Nice guy. Do you notice a trend here? Every one of the Penguins’ coaches this season would very easily qualify as someone considered a “player’s coach.” This is dangerous. Players are players. They’re going to get away with whatever they can, because that is often the nature of athletes. Take a longer shift on the power play because no one will yell at you? Take a retaliatory penalty because no one will yell at you? Slack off playing defensively because no one will yell at you? Yeah, these are all things we’ve seen. With that in mind…
5. Will Rick Tocchet be in the mix?
Here’s what I can tell you: Tocchet badly wants to be a member of the Penguins coaching staff and thinks he can make a difference. He’d love to be the head coach, and he’d be fine with being an assistant. The guy wants to wear the black and gold again. He still lives in Pittsburgh, has a real affection for the organization and is quite familiar with the personnel. His stint as head coach in Tampa Bay wasn’t horribly successful, though he wasn’t in the easiest of situations, either. There is no question that Tocchet wants to be involved. On the surface, he would seem to make considerable sense. He’s a no-nonsense kind of guy. He played with Mario Lemieux and Wayne Gretzky, so he won’t have a problem telling Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin what to do. He won’t be intimidated by them. Plus, he owns a strong hockey mind. The guy was a great player and knows the offensive game very well. Keeps making more and more sense, right?
6. Why should Jim Rutherford care about the future?
So, follow along. You’re Jim Rutherford. You’re 65. You’ve already acknowledged at your introductory news conference that you’re only going to be in Pittsburgh for “two or three years.” You know Crosby will be 27 when the next season begins. You know Malkin will be 28. The window on their prime years isn’t shut, but it’s beginning to close. And you know it. You weren’t brought here to lose in the second round next season, by the way. All that mentoring stuff sounds good, but come on: You’re here to help the Penguins win the Stanley Cup, first and foremost. So, why do you care about the future? What stops you from moving a first-round pick in this or future drafts for someone who can help now? Maybe this is what the Penguins need anyway. Maybe they shouldn’t concern themselves horribly with the future. But it is worth noting that the general manager will be able to completely wash his hands of any future mess the second he leaves Pittsburgh. And his departure isn’t that far away. He said so.
7. Will the Penguins make a splash at the NHL Entry Draft?
Certainly seems plausible, right? The Penguins have become remarkably stale. You could feel it in the regular season, and most certainly in the playoffs. Something about this lineup just doesn’t work. There is talent but no chemistry. There are hard-working players but not hard work as a collective group. Plus, make no mistake, the Penguins organization enjoys some attention every now and then. Don’t you just think the Penguins would like to make a move at the draft? I do, and I think they very well may make such a splash. The Penguins need help at forward, bottom line.
8. Does Rutherford really believe “sweeping changes” aren’t necessary?
The new GM said at his news conference that sweeping changes weren’t necessary. He has to say that, of course. No one takes over a franchise and says sweeping changes are necessary, especially when the organization has been relatively successful despite not winning a championship in the past five seasons. I wonder what he really thinks of this team, and if ownership has made it clear that significant moves are required to make this a Stanley Cup caliber squad once again. We’ll find out soon enough. I sense the Penguins could look dramatically different in October.
9. How do the Penguins make their third and fourth lines better?
Rutherford identified this as a problem for the Penguins last week, and this is a difficult notion to dismiss. It’s a big, big problem. And there isn’t a quick fix. So, you want to improve things via the free agency route? Well, that’s fine. But know that the 2014 NHL free agency class is relatively awful. Would Brian Boyle look good in a Penguins uniform? Steve Ott? Sure, guys like that would look good on the Penguins’ third line. But how much money will they cost? Given the current free agent class, and given that the salary cap is going to increase to around $70 million this summer, teams are going to be making stupid offers to average players. You never want to fall into that trap. There are internal answers, perhaps. Zach Sill won’t score much in the NHL but could be an adequate fourth-line center. I’m the unofficial president of the Harry Zolnierczyk fan club. I think Harry Z. is a good NHL player just waiting to happen. We’ll see.
10. So, honestly, what was wrong with Sid?
It’s the question that won’t go away. It shouldn’t go away, either. Sidney Crosby is a future Hockey Hall of Famer, the greatest player of his generation, one of the great players of any generation, and a person with an almost transcendent and well-deserved reputation for being a good person. This is all well and good. But he wasn’t himself this spring. He wasn’t even close. Defend all you want – Corsi this, Corsi that – but he was a shadow of himself for most of this spring. The goals weren’t there. The points weren’t there. The battles on the boards that he always wins were often lost. The passion that has become a given wasn’t evident. Something was wrong. I wish I could provide answers for you, but I can’t. Maybe he was hurt, maybe he simply hit a slump. But something wasn’t right. Will it be fixed this summer? Probably. But until we see him in October, we won’t know.
11. Do you trade James Neal?
There are plenty of reasons to refuse trading Neal. His talent, contract and age come to mind. No one is questioning what kind of hockey player Neal is. A wonderful goal-scorer, Neal is also a fairly complete two-way player. He’s 26. He makes $5 million per season and, given that the salary cap is about to skyrocket, what already was a reasonable contract for a player of Neal’s talent will look positively golden in a year or two. Of course, there are two sides to this story. Neal embarrassed the Penguins with more dirty play this season. He wasn’t a presence in the postseason. He can often be surly and difficult with everyone from the media to team employees. Some teammates like him. Some don’t. His contract is easy to trade. You know you could get good value in return for Neal. So, do you do it? The depth in return would be nice. But man, he’s a heck of a hockey player. Tough call.
12. If you trade Neal, will Malkin go nuts?
There is something to be said for letting stars know that they aren’t the bosses. Still, there is also something to be said for keeping them happy. Malkin likes Neal on and off the ice. They’re like peas and carrots. They clearly have a great chemistry on the ice, and though it worked for two games against Columbus, Bylsma’s decision to separate the two for the remainder of the postseason was asinine. If you want to trade Neal, fine. There are reasons for trading Neal that make sense. But if you trade Neal, then who plays with Malkin? And really, what’s the point in having two of the game’s great centers if you don’t have the wingers to play with them? Then again, Malkin usually plays better with ordinary linemates. See Fedotenko, Ruslan and Talbot, Max, circa 2009. That worked out alright. But still, Malkin with Neal is a winning combination. Tough call.
13. What to do with Paul Martin?
Paul Martin was one of the Penguins’ best players last season, playing at something close to Norris Trophy level in the playoffs. He was flat-out awesome, brilliant in both zones without ever showing signs of fatigue. He’s 33 and entering the final season of his contract. Is it time for an extension? Well, that would be logical, I suppose. But one must remember that Martin will be 34 at the end of this contract, that he will command a lot of money and a long term, and that a boatload of talented young defensemen – guys like Derrick Pouliot, Scott Harrington and Brian Dumoulin – should all be in the NHL by then. Extend him? Let him walk in 2015? Worry about signing him then? Trade him? Not an easy decision.
14. What to do with Kris Letang?
His no-trade agreement is triggered on July 1. It becomes difficult to trade him after that, and really, are there teams that are willing to give a guy $58 million over eight years only a few months after he sustained a stroke? I’m not sure, to be honest. Letang was terrific in the playoffs, playing his best hockey of the season. He’s only 27. The physical talent is there for all to see. The real question: What does Jim Rutherford think of Letang?
15. What to do with Fleury?
The questions just don’t stop with this roster. So, next up is Fleury. Realistically speaking, he’s the only proven NHL goalie in the organization. Jeff Zatkoff was good in a backup role last season, but I don’t see him leading the Penguins to a Stanley Cup, should Fleury leave or sustain an injury. Tristan Jarry just won the Memorial Cup, but he’s at least a couple of years away from being ready for NHL work. Fleury, who is coming off a terrific season, is entering the final year of his contract. He is the most difficult of the Penguins to analyze. A monumental decision is looming this summer. My prediction: His contract gets extended. But then, I don’t know what Rutherford thinks about him, either.
16. How will the Penguins’ system change?
This all depends on the coach, of course. Are the days of the stretch pass gone? Will five delicate passes in the Penguins’ defensive zone still be required to clear the puck? I’d imagine some of the quirkiness from Dan Byslma’s system will be removed, even if Hynes takes over as coach. I can tell you this: Many Penguins defensemen did not like Bylsma’s system. At all. In fact, some couldn’t stand it. The young guys, in particular, weren’t big fans. Pouliot and Harrington are nice kids and would never come out and say it, but it was pretty obvious that they were never comfortable with the system. They don’t have to worry about it any longer, I wouldn’t think.
17. How much longer are Dupuis and Kunitz first-line players?
It’s not too early start thinking about this. Both will be 35 when next season begins. Kunitz slowed down a bit in the second half of the season. Dupuis is coming off major knee surgery. Both are terrific players and great leaders. But will they be better served in third line roles in a couple of years? If the Penguins determine this to be the case, and if a top-line player becomes available this summer – Evander Kane is the name you’ll keep hearing – will the Penguins pull the trigger?
18. Do the Penguins need to get tougher?
OK, stupid question. Of course they do. But getting tougher isn’t the easiest thing in the world. It doesn’t just happen overnight. It’s an attitude thing. A team thing. To some extent, it’s a coaching thing. Rutherford doesn’t have a reputation for putting together tough teams. The Hurricanes were certainly never as scary as their name. In fact, I can tell you some of the Penguins found the Hurricanes to be rather soft over the years. So, how do they get tougher? It won’t happen in the draft. No one drafted later this month will play for at least a couple of years.
19. Are there any buyout candidates on this roster?
Not really. Before you go nuts, Rob Scuderi can’t be bought out because his last contract was signed following the latest Collective Bargaining Agreement. Of the guys who make a lot of money – Crosby, Malkin, Neal, Fleury, Martin, Kunitz, Dupuis – none are sensible buyout candidates. So, I wouldn’t bet on this happening.
20. Is Beau Bennett established as a top-six guy?
Good question, right? He’s got top-six hands, and he sees the ice the way a top-six guy sees the ice. But there remains great inconsistency in his game. Obviously he is inexperienced and has endured horrible luck with injuries. (That doesn’t make him soft or fragile, by the way. It just means that he’s had bad luck. It happens.) I’d like to see more of Bennett in a top-six role next season, and I believe we will. The jury remains out, though flashes of excellence have been on display.
21. Is Robert Bortuzzo a top-six defenseman?
Let me answer this one: Yes. Yes. Yes. He isn’t horribly gifted with the puck, but he’s so big, so strong, and so tough. He makes good decisions with the puck, even if he isn’t offensively gifted. He’s also got the look of becoming a fine leader someday. That said, will the Penguins make sure he is cemented into the lineup? This wasn’t the case in the playoffs. I suspect it will be this season.
22. How will Pouliot’s surgery change his timeline?
Derrick Pouliot, the No. 8 pick in the 2012 NHL Entry Draft, recently had shoulder surgery and might not be ready for the beginning of next season. It was doubtful that he would have made the team out of training camp, but it certainly wasn’t impossible. This is a big-time talent, a player who took a big jump forward last season. If you saw him play in the World Junior Tournament, you know. Now, you have to wonder if he sees the NHL next season.
23. Are Harrington and Dumoulin ready?
This could certainly play a role in the team’s summer plans. Brian Dumoulin saw some work in Pittsburgh last season and was quite impressive. Big kid, good skater, pretty good offensively, pretty good defensively. There is a lot to like about his game. Harrington has the look of a defensive shutdown guy, maybe a young Rob Scuderi but better offensively. I really like this kid. More importantly, so do the Penguins. If at least one of them can be ready for steady NHL action this season, that’s a big deal. The Penguins would be wise to have money cleared to spend on forwards while letting their young defensemen play cheap at the NHL level for a few years.
24. Um, why wasn’t Dan Bylsma fired on May 16?
The Penguins will never answer this question. Manufacturing an answer wouldn’t be easy. Firing Bylsma was the right decision, so I’m not being critical of the Penguins for coming to that conclusion. But why they decided to leave Bylsma hanging for weeks when everyone knew he would be fired eventually has never been answered, and everything about the situation made the Penguins look bad. I’ve spoken with many people around the NHL, and they are simply baffled as to how poorly the Penguins butchered Bylsma’s firing.
25. Just how far away are the Penguins from being a Stanley Cup team?
Have you seen the Kings play? How about the Blackhawks? The Penguins aren’t on their level right now. Let’s give the Kings the Cup, because that’s going to happen tomorrow, in all probability. That will give the Western Conference six of the past eight Stanley Cup titles. The only two Eastern teams to win in that stretch – the 2009 Penguins and 2011 Bruins – were forced to win a Game 7 on the road. The West is WAY better than the East. It’s not even close. The Penguins aren’t necessarily as far away as you might think – they’ve got Crosby and Malkin, a gifted blue line and a talented, revived goalie – but much work remains. That work begins this summer.
I’m sure I could have produced some more questions, but really, this was far too long to begin with. Thanks for reading. And, as a reminder, Rossi and I will be providing you with steady updates regarding the Penguins’ coaching search and roster leading up to the draft in Philly on June 27. I’ll have an interesting nugget in tomorrow’s Trib. It’s going to be an interesting month. We’ll have you covered. As always, thanks for reading.