The Stanley Cup Final started Wednesday night, but the headlines both immediately before that game and on the day following were in some ways far more intriguing.
There had been a week of questions about what Pittsburgh Penguins GM Ray Shero might do, being under the whip from Mario Lemieux as he was, when it comes to making what could potentially be wholesale changes to a team that has been bounced from the playoffs in embarrassing fashion in each of the last three seasons.
And then the answer to all of them, apparently, was, "Nothing."
On Wednesday, just several hours before the puck dropped on Game 1 of the Cup Final between the team that beat his team for the best record in the regular season, and the one that swept it out of the Eastern Conference Finals with a vulgar display of dominance, Shero held a one-hour press conference that reminded the neutral observer of Muhammad al Sahhaf. "Everything in Mighty Pittsburgh is as it should be! The jackals around the league cannot hope to damage the great power of the Penguins!"
Dan Bylsma, rumored to be embattled (though for silly reasons)? Re-signed for another two years.
All his assistants? Riding back into the breach at his side once again.
This seemed more than fair. The idea that the Penguins didn't beat the Bruins — and, again, were humiliated by them — had little to do with his inability to adapt to the chess game Claude Julien was playing with him from the other bench, though it certainly didn't help things. The argument could be made that the Penguins certainly had their chances, particularly in Games 3 and 4, to make the series at least somewhat interesting, but they got more or less zero bounces to go their way over the course of those four games, and that's just how hockey goes sometimes.
Firing a coaching staff whose charges finished second in the league and in the postseason's final four always seemed shortsighted, even if you might have expected an assistant or two to get shuffled out for the sake of someone's head rolling and maybe changing up, well, anything.
What didn't make sense in that press conference was that Shero, like Bylsma days before him, went to the mattresses for a guy who was the culprit in the first two of the apparently unacceptable first-round losses of the previous two postseasons, and would have been one again this year until sanity prevailed and he got his ass hot-glued to the bench in favor of a 36-year-old with limited playoff experience.
That Marc-Andre Fleury has received a vote of confidence from his coach and general manager -- using roughly the same words to describe their deep and abiding and unflagging faith in his abilities despite all evidence hollering that they should do the opposite -- comes off very much as being the talking points of an administration embroiled in scandal.
It's no secret that Sidney Crosby would prefer to have one of his best buddies around the dressing room every day, but it's also Shero and Bylsma's job to step in and say, "Enough."
The choice between keeping Crosby happy about this kind of thing, when he's signed for another dozen years and certainly not going anywhere, and giving themselves the best chance to win every year would seem an easy one, but then it appears the politics involved in the former will effect the latter unto the end of Fleury's deal two seasons now. At the very least. In the meantime, he'll be a $5 million backup goalie in a No. 1's clothes for no other reason than his having won the Cup four years ago on an all-star team.
The decision to hang onto Fleury, let alone leaving him propped up whimpering on the throne, were especially impressive mental gymnastics by Shero and Bylsma.
"It's difficult to replace 40 wins a year," Shero said in real life. "I can't replace that. I don't believe I can go out and get someone like that."
The idea that it's "concentration and belief" that are holding Fleury back in the playoffs, and not "an inability to stop shots of even moderate quality" is obviously ludicrous, but whatever Crosby wants is apparently what goes. This is the reason Chris Osgood was in Detroit forever; and Fleury is also like Osgood in that he is a sub-replacement-level goaltender.
Of course, the Fleury contract, perhaps as much as his play itself, might be something that holds the Penguins back from future postseason success.
Thursday morning, while much of the hockey world was still literally sleeping off the triple-overtime delirium and exhaustion of the night before, the Penguins announced they'd re-signed Evgeni Malkin to a deal that will pay him $9.5 million a year until he's 35.
A tidy bit of business, considering how much he could have garnered on the open market even with his relative no-show in the Conference Finals. Speculation was that he could have gotten $12 million or even $13 million if he really wanted it, and that Shero was able to avoid paying that was rather deft. It's a genuine bargain (at least for now) in an salary cap era in which fans are routinely told deals, which are anything but, qualify for such designation.
Now, Shero has the two current best players in the world locked up for a decade on average, and that's never a bad thing, even with the concern that they've both missed considerable time in the last few years. Malkin only played 216 regular-season games of Pittsburgh's 294 the last four seasons, and Crosby just 180. That's got to be at least something like a cause for concern.
But in signing both to these deals, and hanging onto Fleury for at least the final year of his deal (if Shero is to be believed about all that belief), he's putting $23.2 million worth of eggs in just three baskets. And that doesn't include Kris Letang, who is reportedly seeking anywhere between five and eight years at something like $7 million or more per season.
The chutzpah it takes to seek that kind of money and term for a defenseman who doesn't play defense and really only racks up second assists on a team that's routinely at the top of the league in offense, is considerable, undeserved Norris nomination or no.
Since 2009, Letang has 72 assists at even strength, only 37 of which were primaries(51.4 percent). By way of comparison, Shea Weber's total is 28 out of 51 (54.9 percent) in that same period, on a far worse offensive team; he can't just pass it to Brandon Yip, watch him walk through four guys and pass to Colin Wilson for a tap-in as Letang could with Crosby or Malkin.
The indications seem to be that the Penguins will at least try to meet his absurd demands, because it's not every day you find a power-play quarterback with the kind of lofty numbers Letang puts up. But even taking the low end of his asking price, the Penguins will have about $30 million tied up in four players, two of which are of questionable quality at best. Even if the salary cap rises to the levels seen this year for 2014-15, when Malkin's (and theoretically Letang's) deal goes into effect, that's still 43 percent of the limit, and that's far too much.
But again, this is Shero in damage control mode, defending the people he put into place and in whom he possibly has misplaced his ongoing trust and with whom he is rather desperately casting lot.
His votes of confidence are now flying around Pittsburgh in much the same way as the blame from others just a few days ago, and Shero is the one standing up in the fire fight and pleading for sanity.
Unfortunately for him, these early offseason moves could, and perhaps should, be the last of his career running the Penguins. There are all these people he has made exceptionally rich, and assured work for the next few seasons at least, and in whom he says he believes implicitly even after all these failures.
If they falter again next spring, Lemieux might not be so forgiving as he.
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