The Pittsburgh Penguins were given 24 hours to work out their hangover. Today, the media has opened the blinds and marched into the room crashing cymbals. It's time to talk about what went wrong, how to fix it and what this team looks like next season.
Dave Molinari of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette discusses one of the most frustrating stories of the Stanley Cup finals: The relative silence of Evgeni Malkin's offensive game. He had nine goals entering the finals; against the Detroit Red Wings, he had as many goals as Marc-Andre Fleury's backside. Molinari reports that Malkin was suffering through a "flu-like ailment that made it difficult for him to keep food down." (More commonly known as "stage fright." We kid.)
Molinari also writes that Malkin is "believed to have been bothered by the effects from a crushing check" from Mike Richards in the Flyers series. (More commonly known as "broken ribs," if you believe the 20 or so people who have whispered that news to us over the last two weeks. But the Penguins haven't confirmed anything, and you'd figure if this were true, they'd have already put the information out. So we'll believe it when we hear it.)
But that's all in the past now. If Ben Roethlisberger believes your team has "all the potential in the world," then it's all about the future.
If only the future for some of these Penguins wasn't so doubtful.
The Penguins have no fewer than 12 unrestricted free agents and a key restricted one in Fleury. Things get even scarier in Summer 2009, when Malkin, Jordan Staal and a few other players are either restricted or UFAs. But for now, it's all about Marian Hossa, one of the blue chip forwards on the open market; Ryan Malone, a solid offensive contributor whose current salary is stunningly low at $1.45 million; Brooks Orpik, a physical defenseman coveted by several teams; and role players like Adam Hall, Georges Laraque and Jarkko Ruutu.
Can this team stay together? Mario Lemieux, via the Globe & Mail, has his doubts:
Penguins part-owner Mario Lemieux, a ghostly presence during the playoffs, surfaced after the Detroit Red Wings beat the Penguins for the Stanley Cup to say as much. "It's going to be a challenge for [Shero] this year to keep our team together," Lemieux said. "With the salary cap here now, you have to make choices and make sure that you build your team according to the salary cap and make some tough decisions.
"It's going to be difficult to make it all work. But there's been great lessons there. We really built this team to give us a chance to win. I'm sure we'll make the right decisions at the right time."
Jim Matheson of The Edmonton Journal looks at the perceived parallels between this Penguins team and the team many feel is its historic precedent:
There's been much talk that the 2008 Penguins reminded people of the '83 Oilers, a team on the cusp of something big, but not quite ready to win yet. That's wrong. After the Oilers got swept by the New York Islanders in the final, GM Glen Sather didn't grind his teeth and mutter that he could be losing Glenn Anderson and Jari Kurri on the wings and Kevin Lowe on defence because they were free-agents. Sather kept all his guns to accompany Wayne Gretzky and Mark Messier, because there wasn't a salary cap and nobody wanted to leave Edmonton, anyway.
"The two situations aren't remotely the same," said Sather, now the New York Rangers GM. "We were able to tweak the team back then. I don't think we lost anybody until (Paul) Coffey (1987, after three Stanley Cups). Now, one player in the league can make more than our whole team did back then. I can remember riding on the bus from Philadelphia to New York and there was a magazine story that listed all he top player salaries in other sports and how it compared to the players in the NHL and our guys were way down at the bottom," he said.
As Bob Smizik of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette points out, not even the coach is cemented in place entering next season. Michel Therrien was working on a one-year contract. What do you do? Sign him multi-year, only to eat the rest of that contract if the team regresses? He did some good things during the postseason, and during Sidney Crosby's absence. And his "hunch" with Max Talbot in Game 5 is now legend.
Steve Simmons of the Toronto Sun adds another wrinkle: Player backlash. He claims Orpik, Ruutu and even Mario himself aren't sold on Therrien. So is he the right guy to lead this team to the Cup?
Here are my preliminary thoughts: The paydays waiting for Hossa and Orpik are too large for the Penguins to match or consider to match; focus on signing the team's 2009 RFAs instead. Many of the grunts -- Hall, Ruutu, even Roberts if he decides to give it another go -- aren't going to break the bank, so the spine of this team could still return.
The questions for Shero are, I think, more about who arrives rather than who goes. The Penguins will have cap space to utilize. Shero's already shown guts and a willingness to move assets in the Hossa deal; it'll be interesting to see how he approaches this summer, and how he intends to avoid what's been a Stanley Cup bridesmaid "curse" in the NHL.