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June 12, 2014
by Josh Yohe


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Yohe: The rise and fall of Dan Bylsma

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Dan Bylsma entered the Penguins spotlight like a lion, but exited like a lamb. No coach in NHL history has made that kind of debut, I’m fairly certain. There was the 18-3-4 conclusion to the regular season in 2009 after he was named coach, the Stanley Cup run later that spring, then the 9-1 start to begin the next campaign. At that point, his record was 43-12-4. (That’s a 125-point pace over 82 games, and 24 of those games were against playoff competition. Wow.)

 

It wasn’t all downhill from there, but it’s fair to say that the Disco Dan Magic was never again captured by the team that felt like a dynasty, and looked like a dynasty, but really wasn’t a dynasty.

 

I learned a lot about Bylsma on my first road trip covering the Penguins. It was Oct. 10, 2009, and the Penguins were in Toronto on a Saturday night. Hockey Night in Canada at ACC. Showtime. And man, did those Penguins play the part. They beat the Leafs 5-2 that night to improve their record to 4-1.

 

Following the game, I had finished my article and stood outside of the Penguins locker room while the players made their way through the arena and to the team bus. The setup in Toronto is an interesting one, as fans from the luxury suite area are permitted to stand beside the locker rooms, giving them unparalleled access to the players. As you might imagine, the Penguins were receiving rock star treatment. Crosby, Malkin, Staal, Fleury, Gonchar and Guerin were among the big names to walk by the fans. The players were all friendly, of course, offering smiles and acknowledgment. But they were in a hurry to reach the bus, so stopping for pictures and autographs wasn’t an option. It was, however, an option for their coach.

 

Bylsma not only acknowledged the fans, but stopped for 10 minutes to pose for pictures. I had two reactions while observing the scene. My first thought was, “This guy is cool. How many coaches would actually stop to hang out with fans like this?” My second reaction? “Man, this guy likes being famous.” I’m pretty sure I was right both times.

 

I like Bylsma. He was always friendly, always accommodating. And really, what wasn’t to like? He quickly became a star, just like the players he coached. At the time, it seemed he was the perfect coach for that team. From the second he arrived on the scene, he turned a good team into a great one. He showed the way. He was the answer. He was a coaching savant, always providing a unique philosophy and doing so in a likeable manner. So, it was quite impressive to see someone stop and take time to speak with fans, pose for pictures and appear so down to earth.

 

But maybe that team – and the ones that would follow – didn’t need a rock star as head coach. Maybe they needed someone who didn’t like the spotlight quite as much. Maybe someone who wasn’t distracted by the Olympics, and someone who was so loyal to a system that clearly possessed flaws.

 

Bylsma never really changed over the years. I ran into him during a tailgate party in the hours before the Pirates beat Cincinnati in the National League Wild Card game. He was posing for pictures with fans, socializing with anyone who wanted to meet the coach. Pretty cool. Not everyone in the public eye is so willing to interact with fans. There is, however, a problem with wanting to be liked, especially when you’re a head coach. His personality with fans mirrored his personality with his players. Eventually, I believe, hockey players will take advantage of such things. They’re generally good guys, but they’re human. Accountability begins to fade. And it did.

 

I don’t blame Bylsma for any of this, really. Imagine having the success he did in those first few months. You never would have changed a thing, either. No one would have. But that early success became a roadblock, ultimately creating bad habits. The 2009 team was special. Maybe the next few years could have produced special Penguins teams, also, but every team is different and requires adaptation. Bylsma never really changed, and his team never grew up.

 

If the Florida Panthers are smart, they will hire Dan Bylsma. Seriously. He is a good coach and he is particularly adept at taking a team with an adequate roster (think 2011 Penguins, with Crosby and Malkin injured) and making it a playoff team. That’s exactly what he’ll do in Ft. Lauderdale. It’s what would be best for Bylsma. He could grow as a coach there.  In Florida, the community isn’t so interested in hockey. The Panthers don’t boast a galaxy of superstars. They aren’t looking to become a dynasty. They aren’t looking to paint the Mona Lisa, which always seemed to be Bylsma’s desire. In Florida, they’re just trying to win hockey games. Dan Bylsma know how to do that.

 

He just wasn’t the coach to produce that dynasty.

 

It’s funny. I still think about that night in Toronto a lot. It was my first ever night on the road covering the Penguins, so of course it will always be fresh in my mind. I remember watching Bylsma after the game that night, thinking he could never lose, that he really was a hockey genius, that he had it all figured out, that his Penguins would be the team of this generation.

 

Problem is, maybe he thought the same. It wasn’t really all downhill for Bylsma. He’s been wildly successful. His record speaks for itself. But it was time for a change, and the Sunshine State might be the perfect place for him to land.

 

- Yohe

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June 10, 2014
by Josh Yohe


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Yohe: 25 questions facing the Penguins

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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.

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June 9, 2014
by Rob Rossi


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Rossi: Bylsma takes talents to TV

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Dan Bylsma did will not go long without work.

Bylsma, fired as the Penguins coach on Friday, has agreed to join NHL Network as a studio analyst for the Stanley Cup Final.

A new release from the NHL said that Bylsma will work series Game 3, which is slated for Monday night.

This is a great opportunity for Bylsma, who had two years remaining on his contract with the Penguins – one that paid him around $2 million annually. TV work, especially on a part-time basis, allows him to still collect checks from the Penguins.

Three NHL teams are without coaches, including the Penguins, so it is possible Bylsma could work again as a head coach next season. Florida and Vancouver are also are looking for new bench bosses.

Bylsma, the fourth fastest coach to 250 wins, would certainly be an attractive candidate for Florida. The Panthers are loaded with young, mostly unproven talent – the kind of players that Bylsma won so often with when Penguins stars were injured – and that market would benefit from a public ambassador for the team; Bylsma mastered that role while with the Penguins.

If neither Florida nor Vancouver turns in Bylsma’s favor, he could do worst than to wait for another job to open up during or after next season. Dabbling in TV would keep him involved in the NHL just enough while also affording him time to spend with his wife and son. He could probably stand to recharge after five-plus seasons with the Penguins.

He met daily with the media during his time with the Penguins, and mostly seemed to enjoy that interaction. His media sessions often lasted a minimum of 10 minutes, and there was no topic off-limits – with the exception of injury updates in the playoffs.

Affable, presentable and never short of an opinion, Bylsma could become something NHL television coverage needs in the United States: an analyst that is unabashedly American with an American view of the sport.

Bylsma, 43, has not been reachable for comment since his firing by the Penguins.

 

>> Speaking of American-born NHL television analysts, Pierre McGuire said Monday morning that the short term of the Penguins GM job was a problem for him.

“I have a situation that’s very long term,” McGuire said during a radio interview with SiriusXM NHL Network Radio.

“The situation that potentially was presented in Pittsburgh was not nearly as long term, especially early on. So, decisions were made. They chose a decision and I chose a decision, and I’m comfortable speaking that way.”

McGuire was one of nine candidate to interview in-person for the Penguins’ GM vacancy, which was filled last Friday when Jim Rutherford was introduced as Ray Shero’s replacement.

 

>> ICYMI, a look at the three faces of Penguins’ management future: http://triblive.com/sports/penguins/6241476-74/guerin-botterill-shero#axzz349RKKQHj

 

>> Also, Bill Vidonic’s touching obituary for Cy “Malkamania” Clark: http://triblive.com/obituaries/newsstories/6242698-74/clark-game-hartnell#axzz349RKKQHj

 

 

Be EXCELLENT to each other,

Rossi

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June 6, 2014
by Josh Yohe


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Mackey: Rutherford, Morehouse news conference transcript

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Trib staffer Jason Mackey transcribed the news conference Friday when CEO David Morehouse announced Jim Rutherford as the Penguins’ 10th general manager.

Q: Your team had missed the playoffs the last five years in Carolina. What do you think the reasons were for that? Also you mentioned complete change with the GM and coach. You’ve promoted three people who are part of Ray Shero’s inner-circle to new positions. Why that decision if they wanted complete change?

 

JR: When I say complete change, it’s really the main decision-makers, OK? As you saw, I didn’t address the assistant coaching staff. One thing that I have done with them is given them permission to talk to other teams, if they wish. But if they wish to not move on until a head coach is announced, they’re more than welcome to do that. The head coach is going to make decision — who his assistants are.

 

As for the Hurricanes missing over the last five years, I have reasons and I know what they were. Certainly our goaltending issues with injuries over the past couple of years have been key. For the most part, we played right down to the stretch, right down to the last game in some seasons as far as not making it. We’ve had competitive teams there.

 

Clearly the business model between the Carolina Hurricanes and the Pittsburgh Penguins is different, OK? You’ve been around long enough, you can figure out what I’m saying. I have nothing but respect for the Hurricanes and the growth of hockey in Carolina. I think they’re on the right track. But for me to start picking out different players and whatnot doesn’t make sense at this point.

 

Q: What type of coach do you look for — style of play and all that? And to David: Do you regret the initial thought to keep Bylsma?

 

DM: Yeah, we talked about that when we talked about Ray. We wanted to systematically look at the whole organization from top to bottom. We didn’t want to make hasty decisions. We went through a process over the course of three weeks, and we came to a conclusion. I don’t regret anything; I think we actually had a very thorough process. As I said before, we talked to over 22 people, we looked at 30 different resumes, we talked to people about people. We talked to people internally, about what was going on within the organization. We talked to people about what they thought needed to happen to make the organization better. And I think through that process is how we got to where we are today. I think it’s a good place where we are today.

 

JR: Okay, I forgot your question. No I didn’t. No I didn’t. I have a short list of coaches in mind, OK? The coach is going to have to adjust to the style of players that we have. Because with the talent level of the Penguins, the Penguins can play whatever way you want. But certainly with the teams that we ultimately have to compete with, we’re going to have to have a coach who can make the proper adjustments during a game or a certain period of time in the regular season or during a playoff series. Obviously the Penguins can score and can score in bunches, but based on looking at the Penguins from a distance, because that’s where I was, I don’t think that they could make the proper adjustments against certain teams. So that’s going to be a key factor when I’m looking at a head coach.

 

Then it’s going to be important to the chemistry of the head coach. If the head coach is a certain way, we may need an X and Os guy as a head coach and a motivator as an assistant coach or vice-versa. But we have to get a good mix of guys.

 

Q: How important is the timeline of the coaching search? Would you like to have someone in place before the draft and free agency begins? Also, are you comfortable that you have complete control in every hockey decision that gets made?

 

JR: I’m very comfortable with my position and that I have complete control. I am a guy who likes to communicate, and I’ll have full communication with the executive committee, the board and Ron and Mario. It was one thing that I talked to Ron about. I know he’s not here a lot, but he says how do you deal with the owner? I deal with the owner the way he wants me to. If he wants to talk to me, he needs to call me. OK? So that’s not an issue. Very comfortable with the control that I have to make decisions. Did I miss part of your question?

 

Not necessarily by the draft but certainly by the time free agency comes. Free agency this year for the Penguins may not be as exciting because we’re up against, you know, if we’re signing the players we want and keeping some players, we’re up against the cap. But we’re still going to look at free agency to see if there’s ways to make some changes on the team.

 

Q: Do you feel the decision on Dan Bylsma had been made when you took the job, and if not was it your recommendation that he be fired?

 

JR: I took the information from the people who were here. I didn’t have several meetings with Dan to get to know him and evaluate him or take his side of the story. The answer to your question is I took the information over the last week with the couple of meetings that I had, and we agreed that making a change was the right thing to do.

 

Q: You mentioned Sid and Geno. Can you talk about why, at this point in your career, this was the right opportunity for you?

 

JR: Well, five weeks ago I decided to step down with the Hurricanes. I did both jobs there. It became very difficult over the last two or three years. It really wore on me. When I stepped down, I stepped down willing to move further from the game but still be a little bit involved … but with an open mind that if somebody called me that I would consider going somewhere if I felt I had a chance to win a championship. I have one Stanley Cup. I have two Eastern Conference trophies. But there’s no feeling — as everybody in here knows — like winning the ultimate prize. I believe we can do it here. So, you have to have top players. You have to have key players. You have to have goaltending. You have to have coaching. You have to have all those things. And my job now is to come in and change some of those things that we need to strengthen in order to get to the end.

 

Q: Is the plan here to mentor the associate and assistant GMs? And concerning analytics, how did you use them in Carolina?

 

JR: Well, I feel that we have two or three guys here who are very close to becoming general managers. What I will is give them big roles, a lot to say and a lot of input into my final decisions. But at the same time, I know that I’m mentoring them. I would suspect — I mean, nobody knows what’s going to happen — but I would suspect that this term for me is probably two or three years here. It’s going to be up to ownership as to who replaces me, but certainly I will get to know these guys better, and I will recommend what goes on in the future. Especially Jason. He’s been here a long time. He’s a very bright guy. He knows the game. I know that he’s getting very close.

 

The analytics are very interesting. If you do it properly — it’s not like baseball; baseball is an individual sport, and you can either hit the ball or you can’t or you can pitch the ball a certain way or you can’t. In hockey, it’s a team sport. When you’re using those analytics, there are things that analytics are going to point out to you that your hockey people don’t see. So I take those points, whether it’s good or bad with a player, then I go back and start questioning the hockey people. Are we not seeing this? The analytics aren’t always right, and we’re not always right. It’s a great sounding board, really. Being a guy who has been around as long as I have, some people are probably surprised that I use analytics. But I’ve used them for a few years now, and I can tell you that they really do make a difference.

 

Q: Can you talk about how you’ve seen this city change as a hockey market? And what is your vision of what a team needs to be to win the Stanley Cup?

 

JR: One thing hasn’t changed from Pittsburgh, and I always see this when I visit Pittsburgh. That’s why I’m excited about being back is the people are great. The people are very friendly. That’s the thing I remembered from long ago when I played here.

 

As for the city, the downtown as changed, a lot of things have changed. As for the team, obviously the Penguins have changed dramatically when they drafted Mario, then Mario retired, and they got Sidney, then they got Malkin. To have the star power for a market like this, I think is great. It makes the team exciting. It makes people want to watch it. And it gives you a chance to win a championship.

 

One of the key things in my opinion to winning the Stanley Cup is you have to be really strong down the middle. We have a really good head start at that. OK? Do you play in a series that you roll four lines? It depends how many injuries you have. It depends what team you’re playing. It depends how good their fourth line is. I will say I think our supporting cast has to be improved. I look at our fourth-line players and some of those guys are double-digit minuses. You can’t have that. You have to have energy on your fourth line. You have to have penalty killers. And you certainly have guys who are capable of playing defensively and not costing you that much on goals against. Like I said, the key is down the middle. We have a great start.

 

Q: Can you elaborate on Bill Guerin’s role? Have you worked with a guy who has filled this role previously in your career?

 

JR: Yeah, Ronnie (Francis) did it with us for a few years. The communication a lot of times with the players, it wasn’t me going directly to a player; it would be Ronnie. They had a trust level with him. It’s the same with Bill. Not long ago he was a player. I would suspect here that the players like him. It becomes a trust level.

 

If you’re going to deal with issues — not that the players are going to make decisions or run the team — but they have to speak up. They may have a personal problem going on. They may not be feeling good. There are so many things that happen that we all forget about. We watch a player play for a month and say, ‘What’s wrong with this guy?’ Well, there’s usually a reason. Having a guy who’s around the players a little bit more who’s not the boss, I think makes it easier for the players to communicate.

 

Q: David, did you at any point, you or Mario or Ron, offer the job or (have) a contract discussion or anything else to anybody other than the gentleman standing next to you?

 

DM: No, absolutely not.

 

Q: When you look at the Penguins’ top two lines or forwards as a whole, what do you see as far as grit and character and how will you address it as GM?

 

JR: Well, I see the top six guys are very talented players. But from a character point of view or a leadership point of view, I really don’t know until I get through training camp and get into the season a month or so and get up to Thanksgiving. Give it a little time. Looking at it from the outside, I suspect that we have good character in that room, but it’s quiet. It’s a quiet approach where you don’t have one or two guys who can stand up in the room and say, ‘This is what’s really going on.’ From a character point of view, I don’t think there’s an issue. But to have someone who’s a little more vocal, or a couple of guys, I suspect that’s probably needed.

 

Q: Your partnership/ownership in Carolina, what happens with that?

 

JR: I have a conflict right now because I have an ownership stake with the Hurricanes, which I invested my own money. (Hurricanes CEO) Pete Karmanos has a meeting with the league on Tuesday. He’s going to get a clarification on that. I would suspect the league is going to say you can’t do that. Which is fine with me. Get my money back.

 

Q: To Morehouse, if Jason Botteril and Tom Fitzgerald interviewed, how much of that process led to the decisions with their roles?

 

DM: We said we were going to talk to the internal candidates. We didn’t talk about the external candidates. So, yes, we did talk to them. Yes, they were very seriously considered. Their body of work speaks for itself. They’re both very good people. They’re going to make great general managers. We thought long and hard about it until a couple days ago. It was very well-thought out that someone of Jim’s credentials and reputation … we’ve seen him in Board of Governors meetings. We’ve watched him operate. Mario knows him. We’ve very fortunate to have someone like Jim Rutherford interested in coming to Pittsburgh and helping us. We’re even more fortunate that we have people like Tom Fitzgerald and Jason Botteril and Billy Guerin around him to help him. I think we put a really strong team together of the utmost character and capabilities.

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June 5, 2014
by Rob Rossi


9 comments so far - add yours!

Rossi: GM search chatter from Stanley Cup Final

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There is a lot of chatter about where the Penguins’ general manager search is headed – and actually, how and when it might end – by well-connected hockey folks at the Stanley Cup Final.

It’s only chatter, however; and there are only four men that could confirm if any of the chatter is accurate. Those four men: Penguins majority co-owners Mario Lemieux and Ron Burkle, CEO/president David Morehouse and COO Travis Williams.

None of those guys are talking; not to the media, not to their closest confidants within the organization, not – seemingly ­– to family members and close friends.

So, consider this the full disclosure. The Penguins are not addressing anything about their search for Ray Shero’s replacement. Silence can and will be viewed many ways, but the safest way to identify it is as being consistent.

That said, some people in the hockey world would know what is going on with the Penguins’ search. Those people would be top-ranking NHL executives, all of whom have been in Los Angeles since Monday. The chatter started making its ways through the pipeline early Tuesday. Feel free to draw conclusions.

This is a summary of what the most consistent chatter was as of Wednesday night:

  • >> The Penguins were very close to making a decision between from a group of final candidates for general manager.
  • >> Interim GM Jason Botterill, Tampa Bay assistant Julien BriseBois and NBC Sports broadcaster Pierre McGuire were finalists.
  • >> An announcement could be made on one of the off days between Games 1 (Wednesday) and 2 (Saturday) of the Cup Final.
  • >> All GM finalists were challenged by Penguins ownership to identify candidates for a new coach in the likely event that current head coach Dan Bylsma was fired as the new GM’s first act.
  • >> Bylsma could end up quickly being tabbed by Florida to fill its head coach vacancy.
  • >> Teams were already letting James Neal’s representatives know they would be interested in working out a trade with the Penguins’ new general manager.

Again, all of that information was from chatter that proved most consistent from a variety of usually well-informed people within the hockey community.

All of it is intriguing and perhaps insightful, but none of it is confirmable.

That lack of confirmation from Penguins personnel making this decision is extremely important to remember when reading this or anything else regarding the general manager search.

Information is out there, though – and at this point our readers deserved to know what information is most consistent and creating the biggest buzz as Penguins approach the three-week mark since Shero was fired May 16.

 

Be EXCELLENT to each other,

Rossi

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June 3, 2014
by Josh Yohe


8 comments so far - add yours!

Yohe: A look at the blue line, goaltenders

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Greetings, hockey fans.

If you thought the Penguins faced difficult decisions at forward, which we discussed yesterday, wait until you take a look at the situation on the blue line. Let’s take a look at the goaltending situation, also.

Here’s what faces the Penguins:

The Defensemen

STILL UNDER CONTRACT

Kris Letang

Age: 27

Contract situation: Eligible to become an unrestricted free agent on July 1, 2022. His annual cap hit is $7.25 million. His contract includes a no-trade clause that is triggered on July 1, 2014.

The bottom line: Well, here’s an interesting situation. What in the world is one to do with Kris Letang? There is no right or wrong answer. Just lots of questions. Will Letang ever develop into a Drew Doughty type player? Before you laugh at this notion, know that Letang possesses all the physical talent in the world to play like Doughty. But he isn’t there yet and, at 27, one has to assume he is close to peaking. The bigger question is whether Letang can stay healthy. He has missed 89 games during the past three seasons. Last season alone, he sustained a stroke, a broken hand, an elbow infection and a knee injury that caused him to miss the season’s first month. There are members of the organization, past and present, that would have preferred to have traded Letang before he was locked up to a $58 million deal last summer. But would trading him now make sense? Given his recent health ailments and monster contract, there’s no way Letang’s trade value is terribly high. Still, his no-movement clause kicks in on July 1, so, in theory, if you’re going to trade him, now is the time. Interesting situation, eh? I actually thought Letang played really well in the playoffs. I’ve long been a fan of his work and think he is underrated in some areas. However, he is not a good power play guy, which makes his future salary pretty difficult to justify. The guess here is that the Penguins keep Letang, but then, we don’t even know who will be running the team in a few days, so it’s a guess and nothing else.

Paul Martin

Age: 33

Contract situation: Eligible to become an unrestricted free agent on July 1, 2015. His annual cap hit is $5 million.

The bottom line: What a hockey player. The Penguins, and this includes former GM Ray Shero, deserve immense credit for showing such patience with Martin in the summer of 2012. It would have been easy to ditch him after those first two seasons. Instead, the Penguins trusted that Martin would rebound, and he is currently one of the NHL’s best defensemen. But, much like Letang, there is no easy answer in terms of Martin’s future. He’s 33. Next summer, when he’s due to hit the market, he’ll be 34. He will want another long term deal and will assuredly get one. If you’re the Penguins – all of these young defensemen have to play sooner rather than later – do you extend a 34-year-old defenseman? Do you trade him this summer, knowing his value is fairly strong despite only having one year left on his deal? Do you keep him for this season and risk letting him walk for no return? This isn’t an easy situation for the new GM. I think it’s worth keeping him around for a few more years, so long as he doesn’t require a no-trade clause. You still need a veteran presence on the blue line, and given Martin’s style, I think he could still be an elite player for about three more years.

Olli Maatta

Age: 19

Contract situation: Eligible to become a restricted free agent on July 1, 2016. His annual cap hit is $894,167.

The bottom line: I can’t manufacture any words that haven’t been written about this kid. He is special, will play in multiple all-star games and was among the most impressive rookies in team history. Maatta is also uncommonly mature, smart and motivated. How the Penguins landed his kid at No. 22 remains quite the mystery. His shoulder surgery in May might slow Maatta at bit when next season begins, but don’t lose any sleep over this. The kid is special and will be Penguins’ property for a long, long time.

Robert Bortuzzo

Age: 25

Contract situation: Eligible to become a restricted free agent on July 1, 2015. His annual cap hit is $600,000.

The bottom line: I’m a Robert Bortuzzo guy. This is a sturdy, physical NHL defenseman who absolutely should have been in the lineup in each postseason game. He’s going to have a lengthy, successful career. Bortuzzo has a lot of sandpaper in his game, which is something the Penguins badly need. He isn’t blessed with great offensive skills, but he doesn’t hurt the Penguins in terms of puck movement. Given his impressive reach and commitment to physical play, this guy should be a fixture on the Penguins blue line for many years to come. Is he a top-four guy? Maybe not. But he’s a very strong No. 5 or No. 6 defenseman at the NHL level, and there’s nothing wrong with that. And he might take that step into top-four territory at some point. Good player.

Rob Scuderi

Age: 35

Contract situation: Eligible to become an unrestricted free agent on July 1, 2017. His annual cap hit is $3.375 million.

The bottom line: The fan base quickly became disenchanted with Scuderi, a veteran who helped the Penguins win the Stanley Cup in 2009. In general, the criticism was fair. He clearly has lost a step and never looked the same after breaking his ankle in October. Scuderi is not a candidate for a compliance buyout. So, what to do? I have two quick thoughts on this: If you can trade Scuderi, this probably would be wise. He makes a lot of money, is almost 36, and clearly isn’t the player he once was. However, I don’t think he’s completely finished. Scuderi looked bad in Dan Bylsma’s puck-retrieval system, which puts a premium on players being able to skate fluidly. This was not the system that was in place when the Penguins won the Stanley Cup in 2009. Maybe Scuderi was just a rotten fit for this system – Martin and Zbynek Michalek didn’t exactly look good in their first year in the system, either – and maybe, assuming Bylsma is relieved from his duties and a more conventional approach is implemented, Scuderi can still be effective.

 RESTRICTED FREE AGENTS

Simon Despres

Age: 22

Contract situation: Eligible to become a restricted free agent on July 1, 2014.

The bottom line: Wow. Now things get interesting. What do the Penguins do with Simon Despres? Your guess is as good as mine. Me? I’d sign him. Despres is an impressive physical talent, a big man who can skate and who has good offensive awareness. Bylsma never liked the guy. He thought he was lazy and that he had a questionable attitude. These are probably fair criticisms on Bylsma’s part, but perhaps the coach should have worked with Despres to improve these problems instead of simply dismissing him. We’ve learned that Despres is too good to be playing in the AHL. He’s definitely an NHL player. Will the Penguins ultimately send Despres to another organization? Yeah, I’d say that’s likely, and maybe it’s the best thing for him. But this man has serious talent and is still capable of becoming a top-four guy on a good team. Another team will always be interested in a defenseman with this kind of talent. Sign him. You can always trade him and get value in return.

UNRESTRICTED FREE AGENTS

Matt Niskanen

Age: 27

The bottom line: This name should get your attention. Niskanen is a good hockey player and one of the finer human beings I’ve dealt with, professionally or personally speaking. The Penguins would do well to bring him back and stitch an ‘A’ on his chest. He’s that kind of person, that kind of leader. He also was one of the NHL’s better defensemen during the past season and seemingly gets better every year. Here’s the problem for the Penguins: Niskanen is probably going to receive offers that range between $5-6 million per season on the open market. Is he that good? Is he worth that kind of money? Unlikely. But he’s a hot commodity in a relatively unimpressive free agent field. The Wild, Niskanen’s hometown team, will make a run for him. Niskanen wants to stay in Pittsburgh, loves the city and the franchise, and feels a sense of loyalty to the coaching staff that has so thoroughly revitalized his game. But that coaching staff might not be here in a few days. The same could be said of Niskanen, whose departure could badly damage the Penguins in the short term, on and off the ice.

Brooks Orpik

Age: 33

The bottom line: It appears unlikely that Orpik will return. While the Penguins would like to have him on their blue line for a couple of more seasons, the fact remains that young players are on their way to Pittsburgh soon and need to play. Orpik could almost certainly receive more money, and a longer deal, on the open market. He’s not a kid anymore and certainly has dealt with some injuries. Orpik, though, remains a physical presence, is steady defensively and is one of the fine leaders in Penguins history. Saying goodbye to Orpik wouldn’t have been easy for Shero, who has immense respect for the veteran. A new GM probably won’t feel the same emotional connection. Orpik is one of the fine warriors in Penguins history, a good man off the ice who will be missed. But it appears quite likely that the final game he ever plays in a Penguins sweater will be Game 4 against the Rangers.

Deryk Engelland

Age: 32

The bottom line: Engelland has almost certainly played his final game with the Penguins. He has an opportunity to sign the biggest contract of his career, but it won’t be with the Penguins. Engelland is a physical defenseman who is probably a better player than he receives credit for. He has limited physical talent but is rarely out of position. He’s also pretty good in front of his net and played surprisingly well in a role on the fourth line this season. The Penguins won’t re-sign him because of the young talent in their system on defense. Engelland should receive a multi-year offer from an NHL team. He is from Edmonton, and that sounds like a perfect destination for him.

 

The Goaltenders

STILL UNDER CONTRACT

Marc-Andre Fleury

Age: 29

Contract situation: Eligible to become an unrestricted free agent on July 1, 2015. His cap hit will be $5 million next season.

The bottom line: We all know his story. We just don’t know how his story – with the Penguins, at least – will end. Fleury is coming off a terrific season that saw him prove a lot of people wrong. He was one of hockey’s 10 best goaltenders this season and played well in the playoffs. Is he the reason the Penguins lost to the Rangers in seven games? Absolutely not. In fact, he’s become one of the most stable forces in what appears to be a crumbling organization. Fleury will want a contract extension with a raise this summer. He probably should get it, all things considered. I wouldn’t be quick to give him a no-trade agreement, but goalies who win 40 games per season don’t grow on trees. Still, this is an interesting situation. Perhaps a new GM won’t think highly of Fleury and will want to trade him? Could it happen? I suppose a lot of things could happen this summer. But Fleury proved a lot of people wrong last season. My hunch is that he stays for quite some time.

Jeff Zatkoff

Age: 26

Contract situation: Eligible to become an unrestricted free agent on July 1, 2016. His annual cap hit will be $600,000.

The bottom line: Speaking of proving people wrong, so too did Jeff Zatkoff. His first couple of NHL starts weren’t good, but Zatkoff quickly proved himself a worthy NHL goaltender. He also has the perfect personality to be a backup goalie at the NHL level. Everyone likes Zatkoff, and I mean everyone. He’s always chirping, always laughing, and always making people laugh. This is exactly who you want backing up the star goalie. Plus, the guy can play.

UNRESTRICTED FREE AGENT

Tomas Vokoun

Age: 37

The bottom line: Vokoun won’t be back with the Penguins, but here’s hoping he receives another NHL job. What a goaltender he’s been. And how about the character of this man? He easily could have retired last season when he was forced to deal with more blood clot problems. But he carried on, doing everything in his power to play again. Vokoun also easily could have complained about the Penguins not letting him play late in the regular season, when their effort indicated that the games were even more meaningless than they actually were. But he never complained. Vokoun should be remembered for his performance in the 2013 Stanley Cup playoffs. Great stuff.

 

THE YOUNG GUNS

Young players such as Derrick Pouliot, Scott Harrington and Brian Dumoulin could all be playing for the Penguins at some point next season. All appear ready for NHL action and all remain under Penguins control. Pouliot recently had shoulder surgery and might not be ready for training camp, but he isn’t far from being a big-time NHL contributor. When he is ready, his path to the NHL will not be blocked.

Harrington and Dumoulin clearly have the look of NHL players.

It will be interesting to see how much confidence a new regime has in playing in the young guys.

 

 CONCLUSION

The Penguins still showcase plenty of talent, but they have reached a crossroads. Whoever takes over as GM has enormous decisions to make this summer.

Do you trade Neal? Fleury? Letang? Martin? None of the above. Do you move Kunitz while his value remains high?

Do you let the young guys play on defense now? Do you try to keep Niskanen? Do you throw a curve ball and keep one of your free agents that everyone is assuming will leave? Do you make a splash on July 1, or do you use the money remaining under the salary cap to keep your own?

Are your superstars happy? How do you find the grit and character that Mario Lemieux wants? How do you make your third and fourth lines better? How do you make your team younger?

Just what was wrong with Sidney Crosby? Is he ok now?

How do you keep the increasingly annoyed fan base happy?

How do you win a Stanley Cup again?

There are probably a few more questions that need answered, but that’s a healthy list. This promises to be an off-season we won’t forget anytime soon. And it’s just getting started.

Stay tuned, everyone.

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June 2, 2014
by Josh Yohe


14 comments so far - add yours!

Yohe: A look at the roster, and a wild summer

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Greetings, hockey fans.

We still don’t know the identity of the new Penguins general manager. One would assume this person will be named sooner rather than later, but then, it’s been a curious past few weeks for the Penguins, so let’s assume nothing.

When the new man takes over control of the Penguins, he’ll have some fascinating decisions to make. Let’s break down the roster.

Today, we’ll start with the forwards. We’ll hit the goaltenders and defensemen tomorrow.

 

The Forwards

 STILL UNDER CONTRACT

 Sidney Crosby

Age: 26

Contract situation: Eligible to become an unrestricted free agent on July 1, 2025. His annual cap hit will be $8.7 million. His contract includes a no-movement clause.

The bottom line: He remains the face of the Penguins and the face of the NHL. It is a face, however, that might possess remnants of a wart for the first time. Crosby, the consensus best player in the world for the past five years, did not look like the best player in the world during the 2014 postseason. Aside from the stunning lack of production, Crosby failed the eye-test miserably this spring, often looking disengaged. If Crosby has been anything while playing hockey, it is engaged. I’ve often called him the hardest working superstar in hockey history. Which Crosby will show up at training camp in September? Was he merely tired or secretly injured? Was it simply a slump that will pass, making this spring nothing more than an aberration as Crosby goes on to finish as one of the five-to-ten greatest players in hockey history? Or, did something go wrong this spring that is foreshadowing a decline in Crosby’s power? I tend to bet on Crosby. Great player, and a terrific human being. But, he’s dealing with pressure now, and not just the kind of pressure that is associating with wins and losses. His legacy took a hit during the past two postseasons. How will he respond?

Evgeni Malkin

Age: 27

Contract situation: Eligible to become an unrestricted free agent on July 1, 2022. His annual cap hit will be $9.5 million. His contract includes a no-movement clause.

The bottom line: Gauging Malkin is always difficult. When in full flight, Malkin is probably more physically gifted than Crosby and perhaps the game’s finest player. Problem is, he’s not always in full flight. Why? What needs to happen for Malkin to play like he did in the 2009 postseason, or during the 2011-12 season? He was pretty good in the playoffs, brilliant at times, and certainly better than Crosby. The decision that will be made with the coaching staff could affect Malkin more than anyone. While he’s had fine moments under coach Dan Bylsma, it has become fairly evident to me that Bylsma is not always capable of getting through to Malkin, or of knowing which buttons to push. Mike Therrien almost always got through to him. What does this mean? It means that Malkin could probably use a coach who isn’t afraid to confront him when things aren’t going well. Malkin is still in his prime, and is well on his way to the Hall of Fame. There is every reason to believe he will play the rest of his prime in Pittsburgh. Although he remains inconsistent at times, I’d say that Malkin is the least of the Penguins’ worries moving forward.

James Neal

Age: 26

Contract situation: Eligible to become an unrestricted free agent on July 1, 2018. His annual cap hit will be $5 million. His contract possesses a modified no-trade clause that begins on July 1, 2015.

The bottom line: Here’s where things get interesting. The Penguins would be making a perfectly logical decision if they conclude that keeping Neal during the entirety of his contract makes sense. After all, 40-goal scorers are rare. Plus, Malkin and Crosby thrive playing with him. Both centers are pretty particular about who they play with. Malkin loves playing with Neal. Crosby wouldn’t mind playing with him more often, by the way. But, as you know, there are plenty of reasons to trade Neal. No one’s contract on this team is easier to trade than Neal’s. He is hardly overpaid. In fact, lesser NHL forwards often make more money than Neal. So, if the Penguins conclude that depth at forward at the NHL level and throughout the organization is a weakness – and make no mistake, it is – trading Neal makes perfect sense, given that a player of his age and caliber could easily draw a couple of young, good forwards. Neal also has developed a deserved reputation as a dirty player, something the front office is sensitive to.  He also is noted for having the ability to rub people the wrong way. But still, he’s quite a hockey player, always plays hard and never once complained even after being removed from Malkin’s line and the top power play – both were bad decisions by the coaching staff – in the playoffs. An interesting decision is looming.

Chris Kunitz

Age: 34

Contract situation: Eligible to become an unrestricted free agent on July 1, 2017. His annual cap hit will be $3.85 million. His contract includes a modified no-trade clause.

The bottom line: Chris Kunitz is a good hockey player and has been among the NHL’s steadiest contributors during the past five years. Crosby loves playing with him. Malkin does, too. Given that Kunitz will be 35 when next season begins, it’s safe to say that we’ve seen his best years. Still, he figures to remain a steady, reliable player for a couple of more seasons. Was there a touch of autumn in his game this spring? Maybe. But he also enjoyed some strong moments, and the fact remains, Crosby’s struggles partially explain Kunitz’s lack of production in the second half. Would the Penguins consider dealing Kunitz to get younger? I guess anything is possible, but it seems unlikely. You know what you’re getting from Kunitz, and in his case, that’s a good thing.

Pascal Dupuis

Age: 35

Contract situation: Eligible to become an unrestricted free agent on July 1, 2017. His annual cap hit will be $3.75 million. His contract includes a modified no-trade clause.

The bottom line: Dupuis is one of the fine two-way players in franchise history, a player who is also a true gentleman off the ice. He is dealing with significant adversity thanks to a knee injury sustained Dec. 23 in Ottawa. It ended his season and has produced some doubt that he will be able to return for the beginning of the 2014-15 campaign. Of course, Dupuis has said on numerous occasions that he will be back for the beginning of the season. He is one of the league’s best-conditioned athletes, a tireless worker who inspires teammates. It will be interesting to analyze his form when he returns. One thing is most certain: The Penguins badly missed him while he was away.

Beau Bennett

Age: 22

Contract situation: Eligible to become a restricted free agent on July 1, 2015. His cap hit next season will be $900,000.

The bottom line: Next year figures to be large for Bennett. There is little question that Bennett has talent. In particular, he is blessed with a wonderful pair of hands and sees the ice well. Should he skate with a proven goal scorer, he figures to be a productive playmaker at the NHL level. Of course, Bennett has also proved anything but durable during his brief NHL career, suffering a number of injuries. We need to see more of Bennett. He might well have the skill to become a legitimate top-six NHL player. But that isn’t etched in stone yet. I’d expect him to start in the top-six next season because of the lack of depth the Penguins have at forward and because the organization needs to give him an extended amount of playing time in that role to see if he flourishes.

Craig Adams

Age: 37

Contract situation: Eligible to become an unrestricted free agent on July 1, 2015. His cap hit next season will be $700,000.

The bottom line: Adams remains a fixture on the fourth line. Given that he will turn 38 next April, there is legitimate reason to think this could be his final NHL season. He remains a reliable penalty killer, but provides little offensive firepower. Adams looked a step slow at times last season but he has long been a favorite of coach Dan Bylsma’s.

RESTRICTED FREE AGENTS

Brandon Sutter

Age: 25

The bottom line: It’s funny the way things work. The perception of Brandon Sutter in the regular season wasn’t so great. He wasn’t productive, wasn’t horribly noticeable at times and was dangled by the Penguins in Ryan Kesler talks. Then came the playoffs, when Sutter was suddenly among the Penguins’ best players. He was defensively strong throughout the postseason and displayed a goal-scoring touch that had rarely been evident during his first two seasons with the Penguins. Does Sutter deserve a huge raise? Tough to say. Would the Penguins be wise to ink him to a long term contract? Probably. He’s not a great player by any stretch, but he’s a good one. He’s also someone who will blossom into a terrific leader. As long as Sutter doesn’t ask for too heavy of a raise, I think it’s wise for the Penguins to make him their No. 3 center for the next few seasons. That said, it could be an interesting summer for him.

Jayson Megna

Age: 24

The bottom line: There is potential here, no question. But there’s also a problem. Megna possesses a bit of goal-scoring touch, but is there enough to consider him as a top-six forward someday at the NHL level? Unlikely. So, while you can use him in a bottom-six role, I wouldn’t say he’s physical enough to be overly proficient in that role. That said, I do believe he’s capable of being a regular NHL player. He doesn’t do anything poorly.

UNRESTRICTED FREE AGENTS

Jussi Jokinen

Age: 31

The bottom line:  What a spring it was for Jokinen, who led the Penguins in goals during the Stanley Cup playoffs. This performance, along with the reality that Jokinen is a solid NHL player, almost certainly has priced him out of returning to Pittsburgh. Someone is going to pay this guy. Should the Penguins pay him? Only within reason. Yes, he’s a good player and he provides some bonuses, namely his shootout prowess and that fact that he was a fine mentor for fellow Finland native Olli Maatta. But let’s not get carried away. Truth is, Jokinen has a bad back, endured a number of defensive lapses in the playoffs and has developed a horrible habit of taking bad penalties. The Penguins already have enough guys under contract who are guilty of that. I like Jokinen. Good guy, good player. But he’s got a chance for big payday here, and I don’t think he’ll get it in Pittsburgh.

Lee Stempniak

Age: 31

The bottom line: Stempniak certainly wasn’t spectacular during his time with the Penguins. But, he did his job pretty well. He was perfectly effective on the first and third lines, scored a few big goals in the playoffs and was a solid addition to the locker room. That said, I’d be surprised if he returns to Pittsburgh. The Penguins need to get younger and can’t afford to be paying average NHL forwards too much money, especially those who are 30 and over. Give former GM Ray Shero credit for brining Stempniak to Pittsburgh. He didn’t make the Penguins a lot better, but he was an upgrade. Only a temporary one, though, I suspect.

Marcel Goc

Age: 30

The bottom line: Much like Stempniak, Goc came to Pittsburgh for a short time and was effective enough, though he didn’t score a goal. He’s a legitimate NHL player, a third-line center on some teams. But do the Penguins need him? Probably not. I believe he will test the market and will probably do OK for himself. It’s too bad we didn’t see much of Goc. I suspect he could have become a fan favorite here. Very likeable guy. But one must think he’ll be moving on.

Tanner Glass

Age: 30

The bottom line: The Penguins desire more grit and character, correct? Well, Glass doesn’t provide a ton of offensive touch and the Corsi Crowd despises him, but if grit and character is what you desire, this is your guy. However, I find it unlikely that Glass returns. He was a healthy scratch for much of the postseason, and this did not sit well with him. I spoke with Glass in the minutes following Game 7 and, while emotions can always run high in such a setting, I received a very distinct feeling that he had played his final game with the Penguins. He’s a perfectly respectable fourth-liner, but the Penguins are likely to move on. Glass was clearly better in his second season with the Penguins and he will find NHL work somewhere.

Joe Vitale

Age: 28

The bottom line: Vitale has spent portions of the past three seasons as the Penguins’ fourth-line center. He certainly hasn’t been a failure, but he also hasn’t cemented himself as a fixture in such a role. Vitale possesses excellent NHL speed and is a terrific faceoff man. Because of these attributes, he’ll find NHL work either here or elsewhere. If Vitale had hands, he’d be a really good player. However, he managed only one goal in 59 games last season. He simply doesn’t possess a feel for the offensive game, which is something that holds him back significantly. Still, when he’s at his best, Vitale is a very good fourth-linter. Problem is, he isn’t always at his best.

Taylor Pyatt

Age: 32

The bottom line: Pyatt is a delightful man and was well liked in the locker room. And, for all of his speed issues – and they are many – he wasn’t unproductive. Rather, Pyatt did score four goals in 34 games which, considering the role in which he was deployed, isn’t the worst total. But the fact remains, adding Pyatt off waivers from the Rangers did little to help the Penguins. He won’t be back, and despite his size, might have trouble landing NHL work next season.

Brian Gibbons

Age: 26

The bottom line: Now here’s an interesting situation. Of all the players who joined the Penguins from Wilkes-Barre/Scranton this season, Gibbons made the biggest impact. His speed is special. Maybe he doesn’t own the world’s finest hands, and he obviously wasn’t blessed with great size, but the guy can absolutely fly. He was well on his way to establishing himself as a legitimate if limited NHL player this spring. That speed – he was especially impressive killing penalties – is a real weapon, and given that the Penguins aren’t exactly bursting with forward prospects, perhaps Gibbons is a player they’d like to keep around. Perhaps other teams were impressed with his speed, too.

Harry Zolnierczyk

Age: 26

The bottom line: Let’s talk about Harry Z for a few moments. Question: Did the Penguins possess a better candidate for their fourth line all season? Answer: No. It remains horribly curious to me that Zolnierczyk was not used more at the NHL level this season, especially given the struggles of the third and fourth lines all season. Harry Z is fast, he is physical, and he plays on the edge. He’s borderline crazy on the ice, and I mean that as a compliment. Don’t you agree the Penguins could have used some of Harry Z’s fire this season? When we saw him at the NHL level, he was very good. He’s been one of the best players in Wilkes-Barre all season. Many Penguins officials told me during the past season that the Flyers badly hindered Harry Z’s progression as a player, essentially telling him to play like a madman instead of teaching him the game. OK. Whatever. At some point this season, he should have been with the Penguins to stay.

Zach Sill

Age: 26

The bottom line: There is a lot to like about this guy. He’s physical, first and foremost. Sill plays the game with a real edge, dishes nasty hits and is a good and willing fighter. The Penguins could have used his attitude in the playoffs. Sill is clearly a limited offensive player – zero points in 20 NHL games speaks volumes, I suppose – but is so good defensively and such a tenacious player that I believe there is an NHL future for him. Could I see Sill being the Penguins’ fourth line center next season? Yeah, I could. Many in the organization really like him. He’s a younger, nastier Craig Adams, essentially. Thing is, those who really like him in the organization might not be in power later this week, so Sill’s future, like that of so many others, remains unknown.

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May 31, 2014
by Rob Rossi


2 comments so far - add yours!

Marshall: Evaluating Tristan Jarry

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Note from Rossi: Jesse Marshall, a local hockey blogger, has agreed to share his unique brand of analytical insight on this blog. His contributions will appear on an as-we-think-of-it basis. Enjoy.

 

>> RISK OF JARRY SELECTION

When the Penguins drafted goaltender Tristan Jarry with the 44th overall selection in the 2013 NHL Draft, they weren’t picking a young player with a large body of work.

The science of drafting goaltenders in the modern league is by no means exact. It’s risky business and even the most well groomed prospects can fall apart completely. It’s even riskier when you are taking a young player who appeared in a mere 41 games through his first two seasons with the Edmonton Oil Kings.

Jarry sat on the bench as Calgary Flames prospect Lauren Brossoit backstopped the Oil Kings to two straight WHL final appearances against the Portland Winterhawks the last two seasons – one of which matriculated into a Memorial Cup appearance. At the time he was drafted, Jarry was coming off a season for which he posted an 18-7 record and made it into only one of the Oil Kings playoff appearances. The Penguins were selecting a goaltender that had a high pedigree with a lack of performances to back it up.

When I spoke with scouts leading up to the 2013 draft, there were a few primary thoughts that made it into the discussion about Tristan Jarry. The first was a slight sense of apprehension about his lack of a starters’ grind. The second was his pedigree and ability to track the puck. The third was that the Oil Kings were losing several key players and a run at a third straight WHL final could potentially be more difficult with an exodus of talent forthcoming.

Fast forward a year, and Jarry is a Memorial Cup champion who has quelled any questions about his ability to handle a large workload on a roster that was perceived as diminished. He posted a 16-4-1 record in the WHL playoffs with a 2.19 goals-against average and a .925 save percentage. This season was a grueling on Jarry. He racked up more minutes in net than any goaltender in North America, including the NHL. Jarry logged 5,268 minutes and at the time of his Memorial Cup victory that was 658 minutes more than New York Rangers goaltender Henrik Lundqvist.

Prior to his time with the Oil Kings, Jarry studied with an academy called Optimal Reaction Sports, which places a focus in a trademarked school of thought called Head Trajectory. Head Trajectory trains goaltenders to track the puck in a way that eliminates delays in reaction. If you had the chance to watch Jarry this season, you probably walked away impressed with his quick legs and lightning-fast glove.

Jarry’s ability to play the puck is already at a professional level. His reflexes are fast and his ability to make second saves is also top-notch. Perhaps there are some improvements to be made in pucks that sneak in via the routine route, but make no mistake – Jarry has exhibited all the tools to become a starter at the NHL level.

It’s a selection that could work perfectly for the Penguins as Marc-Andre Fleury approaches his 30s.

 

Jesse Marshall is co-founder of Faceoff-Factor, a site that breaks down the Penguins by using nontraditional methods such as the study of advanced statistics. Read his work at www.faceoff-factor.com. Follow him on Twitter @jmarshfof

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May 26, 2014
by Rob Rossi


20 comments so far - add yours!

Rossi: Pens prefer new GM to excel at scouting/development.

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Memorial Day weekend may prove the last stretch of quiet before an onslaught of chatter surrounding the Penguins’ general manager search.

CEO David Morehouse held conversations with several potential candidates last week, but talks are expected to progress toward formal interviews this week.

Morehouse is said to have spoken with the following people:

  • PAT BRISSON – one of the NHL’s most powerful agents, including the representative for Penguins captain Sidney Crosby
  • JASON BOTTERILL – the Penguins’ interim GM and the assistant GM under Ray Shero for the last five seasons
  • JULIEN BRISEBOIS – Tampa Bay’s assistant GM
  • DAVE POULIN – Toronto’s vice president of hockey operations

Morehouse is also said to have spoken with his NHL contacts about – and possibly directly with – the following potential candidates:

  • NORM MACIVER – Chicago’s assistant GM
  • RICK DUDLEY – Montreal’s assistant GM
  • JEF GORTON – New York Rangers’ assistant GM
  • DON SWEENEY – Boston’s assistant general manager
  • PAUL FENTON – Nashville’s assistant general manager
  • GEORGE MCPHEE – Washington’s former GM

Shero was fired May 16. Morehouse said then he would not comment publicly during the process to find a replacement.

As of the middle of last week, the Penguins were said to target having a new general manager within two weeks. They want to provide the new general manager time to make a decision on head coach Dan Bylsma before the NHL Enty Draft on June 27-28. Bylsma has two years remaining on his contract, and Penguins ownership is said to be growing comfortable with the potential for him to return for next season.

Morehouse said the new general manager would determine the statuses of Bylsma, his assistants and all members of the hockey operations department.

Morehouse is spearheading the general manager search, though majority co-owners Mario Lemieux and Ron Burke have relied on their trusted league colleagues regarding potential candidates. That group is said to have included Montreal GM Marc Bergevin, Maple Leafs Sports & Entertainment CEO Tim Leiweke, Tampa Bay owner Jeff Vinik, and Brisson.

Penguins ownership is said to prefer the new general manager to have a successful background in scouting and development, believing the franchise needs to improve most in those areas.

 

Thanks to all who have made the ultimate sacrifice for the United States of America; be EXCELLENT to each other,

Rossi

 

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May 23, 2014
by Rob Rossi


14 comments so far - add yours!

RE: GM search update, and Bennett’s woe

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A quick update before the Memorial Day weekend likely slows the Penguins’ search for a new general manager…

 

>> CEO David Morehouse is said to have staged talks with several candidates and plans to pick up conversations next week. However, no formal interviews are said to have taken place.

 

>> The Penguins are said to prefer wrapping their GM search within 2-3 weeks.

 

>> Candidates said to be on ownership’s radar include: interim GM Jason Botterill, Lightning assistant GM Julien BriseBois, Maple Leafs VP of hockey operations Dave Poulin, Rangers assistant GM Jeff Gorton and Blackhawks assistant GM Norm Maciver.

Botterill is said to be very much in contention to replace former GM Ray Shero because ownership believes Botterill and Shero have different philosophies when it comes to the type of hockey team to build and style to play.

 

>> ICYMI, the latest on the Penguins’ injury-plagued week: http://triblive.com/sports/penguins/6160496-74/maatta-penguins-surgery

Shoulder surgeries are tough on defensemen, who already take a lot of punishment by retrieving pucks. Though recovery prognostications of 4-6 months likely mean Olli Maatta and Derrick Pouliot will be playing hockey before the calendar year ends, keep in mind both defensemen will miss an entire offseason of training. Pouliot is 20 and Maatta 19. This summer was going to be big for their physical development, and now it is going to be lost to rehab sessions.

As for winger Beau Bennett, who had a second wrist surgery within seven months – look, the Penguins will hope for the best with their first-round pick from 2010; but Bennett has been operated on a lot for a 22-year-old player. He has played 166 hockey games – in college and as a pro – since he was drafted four years ago. Injuries have already limited his development, and this past season was basically a lost cause.

Two years ago, Bennett was viewed as a top-six forward in-waiting. Now he will have a new GM, one that may be less impressed by a young player that cannot stay healthy. This latest wrist surgery may limit Bennett for what should prove a pivotal training camp in his young career.

 

Be EXCELLENT to each other, and thank a veteran (as you always should),

Rossi

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