By Dejan Kovacevic | Trib Total Media
Just spent a half-hour meeting with Mario Lemieux and Ron Burkle in a Consol Energy Center office. Only others in the room were David Morehouse, CEO, and Tom McMillan, VP of communications.
Keep refreshing, as I’m just going to keep updating the file as I type it out. The entire conversation was on the record.
DK: What’s the best way to describe what was announced today?
Burkle: Well, let’s start with this: We start here with a lot of great qualities. We’ve got a community that gives us a lot of support, the fans, the youth hockey, a lot of different areas that allow us to run to the cap if that’s the place we need to be. And we wake up every day with Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin. So we wake up in a pretty good place.
We aren’t happy to be in the top quartile. If you make it to this round, you’re in the top quartile. That’s good enough for some. It isn’t where we want to be. And as we looked at this team as a whole, the whole year and not Game 7, we don’t think we’ve got a team that’s got all the ingredients we’d need to have for a championship team. And all the things we’d expected to have for a championship team. So, to us, well before Game 7, we looked at how best we’d need to find those things …
Lemieux: The grit, the character. Even on the special teams, you’ve got to have some guys in the playoffs with grit, with character, as well as speed.
DK: Now, you always had that around you, that grit and character. No matter who you had to tick off, you made sure you had it.
Lemieux: (Laughs) Like I’ve said before, it’s a two-month tournament. To get to the end, you’ve got to go through a lot of adversity.
DK: Now, when some hear that, they think right away of fighters. That’s not what it’s about, is it?
Lemieux: No, just players who have some grit and character. We felt that was lacking this year.
Burkle: No matter how well we did this year, we didn’t have that. And it was something that had to be addressed.
DK: The root of any successful franchise is the draft. How big of a problem was the drafting?
Lemieux: It’s a problem. We’ve drafted well on defense. We’ve got some great prospects coming up, guys who are still in Wilkes-Barre, in juniors. We haven’t done as well at forward, obviously, but we’ve got some defensemen, some young guys we feel can step in over the next year or two.
DK: Why wouldn’t there have been a recognition earlier on that this team wasn’t tough? I mean, you could see in training camp that wasn’t the case.
DK: Yeah, me, neither.
Lemieux: That’s just the way the team was put together.
DK: Was there ever any edict from either of you, after the Matt Cooke mess, that the Penguins had to become this squeaky-clean team?
Burkle: We’ve read that. It’s not true.
DK: You know what I’m asking, right? This idea that because Mario spoke up about the Islanders a couple years ago that the Penguins had to become the role model?
Lemieux: No. Not at all.
DK: OK, then, so what does this team look like to you going forward? And I know that’ll ultimately be up to the new GM, but what does that look like to you in the context of this NHL with what you see around the league? Because you’re not seeing as much obstruction as in the past. You’re seeing teams come back from big deficits.
Lemieux: Yeah. You need speed. Look at Montreal, the way they’re built. They have some smaller forwards, but they’re all speedy and they’ve got grit, and they’ve got character. That’s probably what we’d like to have.
DK: Is that why a little guy like Brian Gibbons looked effective in these playoffs?
Lemieux: I think that’s where the league is going now, with more speed. But of course, you need the grit and character along with the speed. If you have those, you’ve got a pretty good chance at being successful.
DK: You both saw Sid’s body language in these playoffs, or for most of them. Especially early in the Columbus series. Did he want a change? He doesn’t strike me as the type, but did he ever ask you for a change?
Lemieux: No, he’s not the type. (Laughs.) At all. I think Sid would be the first one to say he was disappointed in the way he played. I think we all saw that. We’re disappointed, as well. But it’s up to us to surround him with the players that he needs to be successful.
DK: You’ve been there. You know how that feels. When you talk about the psychology of the star player … look it’s one thing for people like me or Don Cherry or whoever to say a guy should just fight through it, but don’t you eventually get sick of being punched in the back of the head?
Lemieux: It’s hard, yeah. That’s why you need guys around you to give you a little room. The playoffs are different. You do have to take a lot of stuff out there, and you do have to fight through it, and you do have to keep your composure. But you also need help.
DK: So, what are we looking at here, some massive overhaul?
Lemieux: That’s going to be up to the GM. That’s why we’re going to go through this the next couple of weeks, hire somebody and start looking at hockey operations and go from there.
Burkle: We had more grit and character when we had all our kids up. Remember that?
DK: I do. I covered that game in December up at the Garden where almost half the roster was up from Wilkes-Barre. One of the most disciplined games you had all season.
Burkle: It’s funny, but we felt like had a lack of that earlier in the year, even though we were winning. But that group performed with even more grit and character.
DK: Well, they listened, too? It was a bunch of Zach Sill and Phillip Samuelsson, but they all did what they were supposed to do.
Lemieux: Phil played well. A lot of them did.
DK: Is this roster too old?
Burkle: That’s part of what we’re talking about right now with the younger guys. You can look at the draft and say what we did or didn’t do, but we’ve got forwards and D-men who we have drafted and didn’t always take advantage of them or done a lot with them. So we have ended up with an older team. When we do see our younger guys, we see a lot more energy, a lot more of what we’d like to see in our game. So maybe those guys at the Garden were playing a little bit ahead of their ability. They made up with their energy.
DK: We saw some of that in Columbus, too, right? It wasn’t just about the city’s excitement. They had Ryan Johansen, a lot of other young players, all who were really amped up just to be there.
Lemieux: They had that nice mix of older and younger players that you need in the playoffs. A lot of fresh legs.
Burkle: Frankly, the salary cap situation is going to drive that anyway. With a cap system, you can’t just have a bunch of senior people on the team. You can’t afford to.
DK: On that note, this team has been guilty, at least in my estimation of not giving its younger players a chance. I’m not going to paint Simon Despres as Bobby Orr, but he didn’t get a chance. It’s the regular season, you’re on your way to 51 wins, and no one ever found about the kid, you know?
Burkle: Agree with that 100 percent.
DK: What’s the best way to describe how disappointed you guys are? I know how you felt about Ray as a GM and person. How disappointed must you be to have reached this point?
Burkle: I think we looked hard at ourselves last year. We spent a lot of time sitting in this very room last year, trying to figure out what changes should we make, what should we do. And we made the decision to bring another coach in and have a look, see if we could be more flexible, try to adapt between how we were playing in the regular season and in the playoffs.
DK: Jacques Martin.
Burkle: Yes. And Ray made a strong argument for what he wanted to do, for the continuity he wanted, for extending the contracts, all the stuff you know about. I think the piece that was added, really by Mario, and that was embraced by Ray was to bring the other coach in and change the ability to adapt to situations. And if you look back at that today, in some ways, I wish we hadn’t made that bet. Because that’s another year. So if we’re disappointed, it’s that we lost a year to the change that we should have made already.
It’s hard when you look in the first round at a guy playing pretty well for the other team, and we got a fourth-round draft pick for him.
DK: Mark Letestu.
Burkle: Yes. So we’ve got to take a look at different ways to do this.
DK: You could say that about Ben Lovejoy, I suppose, and others, too.
Burkle: On and on and on. So we haven’t given those younger guys a chance. We haven’t gotten that right mix on the ice.
We’re a team that’s been talking about finding forwards for Sidney all this time. We haven’t been drafting those forwards, and we’ve given up some younger players along the way. That has to change.
DK: Let’s talk about Kris Letang. There’s a decision to be made, as his no-trade clause will kick in after this summer. Will that be made by ownership? That’s a pretty big call.
Lemieux: That’s on the GM. We signed Kris to keep him. But when the GM comes in, he’s going to evaluate the team. If he sees fit to trade any of these players, he’ll certainly talk to us about it. But it’s his call.
DK: You believe in Kris Letang?
DK: Is there any value in the NHL’s current economic system to maintaining some kind of cushion with the cap?
(Both men laugh.)
Lemieux: Yeah. How do we do that?
DK: Well, by drafting better? Don’t you have to have four or five younger players on your roster for that purpose alone?
Burkle: We certainly don’t disagree with you on that. I think when we made a decision for a lot of good business to go to the cap six years ago, we were opening a new arena, and we wanted to let our fans know we intended to win. It was actually one of those two or three moments where we all got involved in the hockey operations, the GM’s world, and everything else. It’s ultimately our decision how much we spend, but we all sat down and said, look, you guys have a plan for the team you want to have in five years, we want to step it up. We don’t want to wait five years. I’ve got Crosby now. I’ve got Malkin now. I don’t think a five-year plan makes sense.
But what that wasn’t was a commitment to spend to the cap just to say we spent to the cap. And I think what we fell into was spending to the cap just because it was there. We don’t have a driven reason to spend to the cap just to do it. That’s foolish.
Lemieux: That’s something we’ll be looking as all this unfolds.
Burkle: It’s kind of a different issue, but we’ve talked in the past about a resistance to identifying someone who’s a good, young player and locking them up early. That can make a difference.
DK: Other than James Neal, I’m struggling to think of an example.
Lemieux: (Smiles) Matt Niskanen?
DK: Right. Why wait?
Lemieux: He’s a good player.
DK: OK, so as much as I appreciate this, there are people who want to know why you both didn’t make this announcement or attend the press conference today? Do you want to wait until all the pieces are in place? Obviously, people want to hear from you. Both of you, but especially you. (Nod toward Lemieux.)
Burkle: It’s neither one of our styles. There’s no dissension between us, but there’s no worry between the two of us as to who’s going to go out front. It’s neither of us. (Both laugh.) That’s David’s job.
DK: Can you both realistically say that a lot of the stuff that looks like it doesn’t make sense today will make sense before long?
Lemieux: I would say so.
DK: Because, to be honest, seeing that Dan Bylsma is still here doesn’t look like it makes sense right now.
Burkle: Well, let me take that. Just because someone makes a clean sweep doesn’t make something right.
Morehouse: And not reacting emotionally rather than systematically.
Lemieux: There are a few franchises that have done it. I won’t name them.
Morehouse: But as Ron has said, we’re starting from a different point. This isn’t a team that didn’t make the playoffs. This is a team that has a lot of assets already. So what we’re trying to do is systematically figure out how to get to a higher level. You do that carefully. You do that in a way that allows you to make either major or minor adjustments.
DK: So what we’re getting that with all of this is that the new GM, whoever that is, will do all of that.
Burkle: I like to give the example of a company I bought some 20 years ago, and everybody always looks smart when they come in and change everything. So my guys go in there, lay everybody off, then hire a headhunter … and recruit some of them back. So they’re getting their severance and their pay.
We do some things right here. I’ve told you about the things we’ve done wrong, so we made a change at the top. But what we really want is the best team, so when we bring in a GM, we’re going to give him the ability to change it the way he wants.
DK: OK, I have to ask this: So there’s nothing ugly in this like hoping that Bylsma resigns to save you the rest of his contract, or keeping him from the openings in Washington or Carolina?
(Room gets pretty animated.)
Lemieux: No. If Dan was fired, he’d get a job tomorrow.
DK: So you wouldn’t keep him from another opportunity if it came?
Lemieux: No! No chance.
Morehouse: You can’t make that point without considering the character and history of these two men. It’s not a point you make in a vacuum. Look at what these guys have done. Nothing that they’ve done would lead you to believe they’d keep someone on to not pay them. Or that they’d try to prevent someone from coaching.
DK: It’s a question I have to ask.
Morehouse: These guys, Ray and Dan, were part of a Stanley Cup team, and they’ll always be part of that. We’re not trying to [stick it to] anybody. Come on, you know these guys.
DK: I want to portray this as accurately as possible. That’s why I’m asking.
So to repeat all this back, your mission here is to bring in a GM with real hockey authority and allow him the ability to pick how he wants and doesn’t want out of this group. Is that right?
Morehouse: Yes. And this group we have has had enough of a level of success that you owe it to them and to the new GM.
DK: OK, that’s what I’m asking.
Burkle: It’s funny because, in business, if you ever just cleaned house, that wouldn’t make sense to anybody. People think something’s wrong with you. Especially when not everything is broken.
DK: And this new GM can come in and do what he wants.
(That’s it. Believe it or not, we started talking about tennis next.)