Ray Shero pays the price for Penguins' disappointment, Dan Bylsma could be next

Nicholas J. Cotsonika
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The Pittsburgh Penguins have fired general manager Ray Shero and not coach Dan Bylsma. It looks weird, but that doesn’t matter. What matters is this: Owners Ron Burkle and Mario Lemieux are unhappy, and this is just the beginning.

CEO David Morehouse said Friday the Penguins have already started the search for a new GM and the new GM will evaluate the entire hockey operations department, including the coaching staff. Bylsma is not safe.

“I don’t think there’s an element of weirdness,” Morehouse said. “We’re trying to do it systematically. What we wanted to do was first address the situation at the top, and the leader of the organization is the general manager.”

If you’re going to fire Shero, this makes sense for several reasons:

-- You want everyone on the same page. You want to put the new GM in the best position to succeed. You do that by moving one step at a time. Ideally, the owners will hire the GM they want, and the new GM will hire the staff and the coach he wants. The vision will be in line from top to bottom. But the timing doesn’t always work out perfectly.

-- You can’t clear out the front office now. You need a functioning hockey operations department leading up to the NHL draft June 27-28. Assistant GM Jason Botterill has become the interim GM. He will be a candidate for the permanent position.

-- The Penguins are getting a late start on making changes because they went to a seventh game in the second round, and the coaching pool was considered shallow already. The Toronto Maple Leafs kept coach Randy Carlyle because they didn’t think any available candidate was the right guy for the long term, and four other teams are looking – and competing – for coaches right now. You don’t want to bring in a new GM and force him to hire a new coach he thinks isn’t better than Bylsma. You want to give him as many options as possible.

[Puck Daddy: Penguins coach Bylsma avoids the chopping block]

-- Two of the other four teams looking for coaches are in the Penguins’ division (the Carolina Hurricanes and Washington Capitals) and another is in the Penguins’ conference (the Florida Panthers). Burkle and Lemieux told the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review they would never keep someone from pursuing another opportunity. But while they look for a new GM and then let the new GM evaluate the coaching situation, it sure doesn't hurt that Bylsma isn't available to the competition.

“He’s under contract,” Morehouse said. “Another team’s not allowed to entertain thoughts. I have complete confidence that if Dan is indeed not the coach here that he’ll be quickly picked up somewhere else. He’s a great coach.”

Shero lost his job and Bylsma might lose his because the Penguins have not returned to the final since winning the Stanley Cup in 2009. They have been eliminated from the playoffs by a lower-seeded team five times – unacceptable for a team with Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin, two of the best players in the world. Morehouse called it “five consecutive years of underachievement.”

There needs to be perspective here: Even though he inherited Crosby and Malkin when he became GM in 2006, Shero helped build the team that went to the final in 2007-08. He fired Michel Therrien and replaced him with Bylsma in 2008-09, and Bylsma helped put that team over the top. The Penguins have been through a lot over the past five years, most notably injuries. Crosby and Malkin missed large chunks of time, including the 2011 playoffs.

Bylsma won the Jack Adams Award as the NHL’s coach of the year in 2010-11 for how he survived shorthanded. Shero was voted the GM of the year by his peers last year after acquiring Jarome Iginla, Jussi Jokinen, Brenden Morrow and Douglas Murray before the trade deadline. He made good moves and bad moves – and some of the bad moves looked good at the time.

But the bottom line is that this team’s structure broke down too often, and its depth eroded over  time because of drafts, transactions and cap issues. Shero’s challenge was to keep Crosby and Malkin and then give them a strong supporting cast. He kept Crosby and Malkin, signing them to huge extensions – Crosby through 2024-25 at a $8.7 million charge, Malkin through 2021-22 with a $9.5 million charge. He couldn’t keep their supporting cast strong.

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Crosby was the runaway MVP in the regular season and one of the best possession players in the league through two rounds of the playoffs this year, but he had one goal in 13 games – and has one goal in his last 18 playoff games going back to last year. The Penguins scored three goals as they lost three straight games and blew a 3-1 series lead to the New York Rangers. Crosby needed to produce more, and he needed more support. Jonathan Toews had three goals in 23 playoff games last year, but the Chicago Blackhawks won the Cup. They have a more complete team.

“This is a lot different than a team that needs to have a complete overhaul and a revamping, that has missed the playoffs for consecutive years,” Morehouse said. “We’re a team that’s a good team. We just have high expectations, and we want to get better, and the ownership group thought that change was necessary at this point.”

[Puck Daddy: GM Shero fired after disappointing finish to season]

Firing is the easy part. Hiring is the hard part. Morehouse said the Penguins have no specific GM candidate in mind – that they have a list of candidates and expect it to grow now that the job is open.

One name to watch is Pat Brisson, because he is Crosby’s agent and close to Lemieux. Brisson is well-respected. But he also represents many other high-profile NHL players and makes a lot of money doing it. The question is whether he wants to give that up for a shot at the Cup. (He did not return a phone call.)

This is a coveted job, but it’s a brutal job, too. The next GM will inherit a top-heavy payroll – a few key players locked up long term, many others on expiring contracts. He must decide whether to trade core pieces like James Neal and Kris Letang, what to do about Marc-Andre Fleury, how to bolster the bottom six, how to draft better. He must find the right coach – someone who can click with Crosby and Malkin and make the most of them, but who can also bring discipline and structure and get the best out of the rest, too.

And he must do all of that knowing it’s Cup or bust.

“It’s not a complete rebuild,” Morehouse said. “This is a team that has had a level of success. What we’re trying to do is get from good to great.”

 Easier said than done. Just look at the last five years.