Therrien loses Penguins, game, job; Also: Woe for small goalies
Unpopular Michel Therrien was fired after extension and vote of confidence
Dan Bylsma will be interim coach unless he completely revives the Penguins
Based on performance this season, small goalies may be on way out of NHL
Late last Friday afternoon, Pittsburgh Penguins general manager Ray Shero told On The Fly that his coach, Michel Therrien, deserved a chance to work through his team's problems -- just like he successfully had in the past.
Forty-eight hours later, Shero changed his mind and fired Therrien.
The catalyst was seemingly the third period of a 6-2 debacle Saturday in Toronto when the Penguins were torched for five goals, a shocking show of indifference by a team with high-rent talent and genuine pedigree. Shero would tell reporters Sunday he was more struck by the way his team played against the Maple Leafs than the outcome.
That ugly third period certainly was eye-catching, but a statistic from the first two periods might be a more telling indicator of why Therrien, who coached the Penguins to Game 6 of the Stanley Cup finals last season, was inviting a pink slip:
Captain Sidney Crosby played 129 seconds on the penalty kill in the first two periods, which was even more baffling than the titanic implosion by a team that is now life and death to make the playoffs.
Crosby, who had taken the morning skate despite having a flu that made him look like a zombie on blades, had limited energy to expend that night. On a team with a surfeit of forwards capable of killing penalties -- although not well, considering the Penguins entered the game 20th in the league -- Therrien chose to use Crosby in this labor intensive exercise rather than allow him to husband his strength for more critical moments. This was an extraordinary waste of his most important player under the circumstances, a small-picture blunder by a coach who had been rewarded with a three-year contract extension last summer.
Given the Penguins' history, no NHL franchise would seem more reluctant to pay someone not to do a job. But as a team official noted after the game on Saturday, these are not the old bankrupt Penguins. If the team had to eat some money -- and Therrien reportedly earned about $1 million per year -- it would.
The prevailing theory is Therrien lost the dressing room. In truth, he probably never had it. He never was a popular coach, not that popularity is a prerequisite for being a successful one. (c.f. Bowman, William Scott.) Therrien helped turn Pittsburgh from bunglers to a Stanley Cup threat in three years, which is to his everlasting credit. He could be remarkably heavy-handed -- you remember his rant a few years ago when he threw his defensemen under the bus and then backed up and drove the bus over them a few times? -- but he actually had backed off a little this season after the run to the finals.
Earlier this season. Therrien told Pittsburgh writers, "I know this team, these players. I don't feel the need to send messages. They know what I expect and what I want and what wins. When they're not doing it, they know. I don't need to say it [in the press] anymore."
Of course, hardheaded coaches are a lot more palatable when a team is winning. With the Penguins languishing in 10th place in the Eastern Conference, Therrien's imperiousness and strained relationships with many of his players -- probably Crosby, too, although he never gave any public indication of it -- were not going to work.
Shero has turned the team over on an interim basis to Dan Bylsma, a former NHL player in his first season as head coach of the Penguins' AHL team in Wilkes-Barre, Pa. If he can revive Pittsburgh, Bylsma will stay. If the Penguins continue to founder in their final 25 games and miss the playoffs, next summer look for Shero to consider Brent Peterson, a Nashville assistant, or Todd Richards, who coached in Wilkes-Barre but now is an assistant to Todd McLellan in San Jose.
Small goalie, big beating
Not to go all Dr. Ruth on you, but size counts like never before for with NHL goaltenders.
Prompted by the estimable Penguins TV analyst Bob Errey, we spent an agreeable afternoon trying to find a correlation between size and success this season among NHL goalies. (Not that numbers are a particular strength. A 12th-grade math teacher once said I put the boo in Boolean algebra.) But using the statistics heading into Saturday's games and employing official NHL heights, I examined the goalies who had played the most games for their teams or, in the cases of Ottawa's Brian Elliott and Los Angeles' Jonathan Quick, the ones who are clearly the No. 1 starters, to see how size might factor.
The NHL has four categories: goals-against average, wins, save percentage, and shutouts. The only "small" goalies in the top 10 in any of those categories are Boston's Tim Thomas (first in save percentage, second in GAA and seventh in wins at 5-feet 11-inches and 201 pounds), Dallas' Marty Turco (fifth in wins at 5-11, 189) and Washington's José Théodore (10th in wins at 5-11, 182). The other 23 goalies who appear at least once in one of these categories are six feet tall or more.
What prompted this casual inquiry was some anecdotal evidence that this has been a horrible season for "small" goalies.
Manny Legace (5-10, 200), whose pads seemed to go up to his chin, wound up being waived out of the league by St. Louis.
Although Turco has played better during the Stars' post Sean Avery-resurgence, his save percentage by Valentine's Day was still below .900.
Chris Osgood (5-10, 176) won his fourth Stanley Cup in Detroit last June, but his save percentage is .881 and GAA 3.24 -- far below coach Mike Babcock's reasonable expectations for a goalie with portfolio.
Théodore, the 2002 Hart Trophy-winner, was a tick below .900, the bare minimum of save-percentage respectability. Toronto's Vesa Toskala (5-10, 190), a notch below the others, was saving at a .882 rate. Among the compact crowd, only the acrobatic Thomas was having a strong season.
At a time when teams are not shy about employing smaller skaters -- Buffalo's Nathan Gerbe isn't allowed on the rides at Disney World -- the days of the Gump Worsley-Mike Vernon-John Vanbiesbrouck-sized goalie seem numbered.
"Simple. The bigger the goalie, the more of the net that's covered," says Oilers vice-president of hockey operations Kevin Prendergast. "Guys can find holes on smaller goalies, no matter how good or athletic they are. (Anaheim's 6-1, 200-pound Jean-Sébastien) Giguère is a great example. He covers the bottom of the net, and blocks, lets the pucks hit him.
"You're seeing this in (scouting) college and junior hockey. Everybody wants the big guy. That (Jacob) Markstrom kid Sweden had at the world juniors" -- named the outstanding goalie in the tournament -- "is 6-3. It used to be we wouldn't even look at a skater if he were smaller than 5-10, but now we do. You wonder if we'll stop looking at goalies under six feet unless they're exceptional."
Another number: 52
Washington defenseman Mike Green, the scoring machine, wears No. 52, something that a non-roster pitcher might be handed at the start of spring training. After the Capitals lost in the first round to the Flyers last spring, Green decided that he was going to change to something more appropriate -- No. 27, which is what he wore in junior hockey.
Then things started happening.
As Green tells it, he would look at his watch and the time would be precisely 9:52. He would look at it a little later in the day, and the time would be 2:52.
"That's kinda weird, right?" Green asks.
Then when the restricted free agent had his contract renegotiated last summer, his annual salary was $5.2 million -- which clinched the deal. He is now No. 52 forever.
Of note: Green set a record for defenseman on Saturday when he scored a goal in his eighth straight game, while wearing a number as high as his upside.