Tough ice ahead for Penguins
The handshake line at the conclusion of Game 6 had barely dispersed into exhausted pools of the joyous and the inconsolable when the rumors regarding the job security of Penguins coach Michel Therrien began to fly: The players are on the verge of revolt, Brooks Orpik won't re-sign if Therrien stays, Jordan Staal is no fan of the man behind the bench.
It's hard to imagine GM Ray Shero tying the can to the man who just led the team to within two wins of the Stanley Cup, but soccer powerhouse Chelsea did just that two weeks ago after falling to Manchester United in the European Champions League finals. On penalty kicks, no less.
There's certainly room to question Therrien's tactical skills, especially after he failed to outwit Mike Babcock in the Penguins' last two home games, but that's not the sticking point. There's plenty of talk that some key players, Staal among them, have problems with his style, and it's easy to see how that could factor into his contract negotiations. Whether there's enough discontent to turf him is unclear, but the season's exit interviews should be telling.
In the meantime, it's easy to imagine the words of encouragement that might have passed from Conn Smythe-winner Henrik Zetterberg to the heartbroken Sidney Crosby in that handshake line:
"Your time will come, Sid. Your time will come."
Those would be kind words, the generous platitude of the victor honoring a vanquished but inordinately promising opponent.
But they're not necessarily true.
There are no guarantees when it comes to earning the most difficult championship in pro sports. Just ask Eric Lindros, who no doubt thought the time soon would come for him and his Philadelphia Flyers after they were swept by the Red Wings in 1997. That second chance never arrived.
So here are two bits of advice for Crosby and the rest of the Penguins: Take a good long time to be proud of what you accomplished this season. And don't for a moment assume that you'll be back for another shot next year.
To the first point: Just 24 months ago, this franchise ranked 29th of 30 teams. Last spring, they barely qualified as a first round speed bump for the Ottawa Senators. Yet, there they were in 2008, two games and a couple of bounces from winning the Cup. And this was no fluke, not like the Oilers of 2006. From the beginning of the season to the frantic final seconds, this team displayed a level of skill, heart and sheer will that made them worthy representatives of the Eastern Conference.
Therrien noted after the loss that the kids at the core of this club grew up quite a bit over that span. But it wasn't just over the course of these playoffs. It was a season-long process. This was, after all, a team that battled through extended injuries to both Crosby and goaltender Marc-Andre Fleury and fell just one point shy of finishing first in the East. This is a team that reshaped itself at the deadline, acquiring Marian Hossa and the surprisingly valuable Hal Gill. It's a team team that lost just twice on the way to the Cup final, and one that showed incredible grit by splitting the last four games of the series after looking completely overmatched in Games 1 and 2.
All of this will become clear once the pain of the way they lost Game 6 -- the fluky own-goal by Fleury that stood as the winner, and Hossa's tantalizing but failed tying bid as time ran out -- wears off. And there should be considerable satisfaction in knowing that the core is sound.
Crosby, second in playoff scoring, was a force throughout the playoffs. He was muted somewhat in the final, but still managed to post six points in six games. Staal became a grizzled veteran at 19, earning his stripes with a heavy workload and by establishing himself as someone who could contribute both with and without the puck. Evgeni Malkin was quieted, but his claims of being hobbled by the flu would explain his limited effectiveness against the Wings.
And then there's Fleury, who showed the door to doubters with his play this spring, particularly in the triple-overtime marathon of Game 5. All championship teams are built around a goaltender who can thrive under postseason pressure. The 23-year-old demonstrated his readiness to be that player, posting both a goals-against average (1.97) and save percentage (.933) that were significant improvements over his regular-season numbers. And he won 14 games, a stat far more impressive than the previous two.
For all the scoring exploits up front, it was Fleury who was the team's top performer in the playoffs, an impression that should weigh in his favor when he enters contract talks with Shero gunning for a big raise. Which leads us to the second point. Getting back to the Finals is hard enough. Getting back without eight regulars, and with, perhaps, a new coach, will require a real neat trick.
Safe to say, the Penguins who take the ice next October will be absent some familiar and valuable faces. With nearly $30 million already committed to their 2008-09 squad, and key building blocks like Fleury, Malkin, and Staal as well as complementary pieces such as Max Talbot and Tyler Kennedy all needing to be signed in the next 12 months or less, there isn't enough room under the cap to take care of impending free agents Hossa, Orpik, Ryan Malone, Gary Roberts, Georges Laraque, Pascal Dupuis, Jarkko Ruutu, Adam Hall, Ty Conklin and Mark Eaton.
Contracts for the Fleury, Malkin and Staal will be Shero's first priority. If he can get even one of the three to play for less than market value with such a promising team, it'll be a successful summer. There's always the chance that some of the unrestricted players would offer a discount to stay, but it's less than likely.
The expected departure of Hossa (the Bruins keep popping up as a likely destination) will hurt, given the bounty the Penguins paid for him and how well he meshed with Crosby as an effective two-way presence on the top line. But Hossa, more than the rest, is a victim of cap constraints -- a fact that Shero certainly anticipated when making the fateful deal with the Thrashers. They needed Hossa to be a monster in the playoffs, but they also knew that if he was, it would all but eliminate the Pens from retaining his services.
Malone and Orpik, two homegrown heroes, also priced themselves out of Pittsburgh with eye-opening playoff performances that could attract offers for long-term deals starting at $4 million elsewhere. And Orpik's reported discontent with Therrien would only be an added incentive to hit the road.
There's a chance some UFAs could be retained, including the oft-injured Eaton. His defense-first style made him an ideal partner for Sergei Gonchar, and his ability to kill penalties and block shots would help compensate if Orpik leaves. Dupuis, who flashed some speed and grit on Crosby's flank, is another possibility to return, as is Conklin, whose steady play during Fleury's long convalescence kept the Penguins in the playoff hunt.
The Pens also have some interesting kids who could make the jump next season, including Alex Goligoski, an undersized defender whose game is similar to that of Kris Letang. But that still leaves several key openings -- including both of Crosby's wings -- to fill before Shero can take down the help wanted sign. And then there's that little matter of the coach.
If you thought the dying moments of Game 6 were exciting, stick around. Things are about to get frantic in Pittsburgh.