The housecleaning has begun in Pittsburgh. The Penguins announced Friday that general manager Ray Shero has been relieved of his duties. Head coach Dan Bylsma, previously reported to also be on the way out, will remain as head coach for now. The new general manager will make a decision on the future of the team's hockey operations, including Bylsma's status for next season.
It was pretty clear coming out of the disappointing series against the New York Rangers in which the Penguins blew a 3-1 series lead to lose in seven games that Pittsburgh ownership led by Mario Lemieux and Ron Burkle would not stand idly by.
"Our ownership group felt that it was time to move in a new direction," said Penguins president and CEO David Morehouse in a news conference to announce Shero's ouster. "We feel that new leadership could help us get back on track and achieve our goal of winning the Stanley Cup."
The new general manager will be charged with fully evaluating the team's hockey operations. The first order of busines is likely going to be deciding Bylsma's future.
Penguins assistant general manager Jason Botterill will be the team's interim GM and is a candidate for the full-time role according to Morehouse, but it sounds like no major decisions regarding the club's structure will be made until the general manager position gets officially finalized.
Shero exits after eight seasons at the helm of the Penguins. He's had his share of ups and downs, but he helped put the team on a track for two Stanley Cup Final appearances, winning the top prize in 2009. He also secured long-term deals for some of the game's best players in Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin. Shero was named the NHL's general manager of the year just last season. Tough business.
Looking at the entirety of Shero's career as an administrator with the Penguins, he had a lot more hits than misses. Looking back at some of the trades he made, particularly in acquiring James Neal and Matt Niskanen for Alex Goligoski, Shero proved he had a talent for the job and an ability to get the better of opposing GMs. He also acquired Chris Kunitz for a declining Ryan Whitney while the former became one of the league's better goal scorers.
Those are the types of deals that usually bring job security, but those were moves that only addressed the top of the lineup and Pittsburgh's bottom six forwards were constantly a source of disappointment and a detriment to the team.
The Penguins' drafting has come under fire, also, particularly the team's apparent inability to draft contributing forwards under Shero. The club selected defensemen in three consecutive first rounds, landing Derrick Pouliot and Olli Maatta, who was an impact player for the Penguins this year. Joe Morrow, the other first-round defenseman was used as trade bait last season to acquire Brenden Morrow. Additionally, second-round pick Scott Harrington looks like a potential impact defenseman for the Pens down the line.
Still, not having any forwards moving up into the lineup to provide affordable depth players with potential to move up the lineup is a failure, even against those hits among defensive draft picks. Is it firable though? That's tougher to say, but it has to be part of the decision.
Perhaps another of the team's mistakes was hitching its wagons to Marc-Andre Fleury in net. His career .910 save percentage is below average. This last postseason, he actually had his best numbers since the Stanley Cup run. The four preceding playoff campaigns, Fleury had a sub-.900 save percentage. Not many teams are going to win with that.
The head coach and general manager are ultimately held responsible for what happens on the ice. While the Penguins were always one of the better teams in the league, their postseason mishaps were not totally unpredictable.
Bylsma being safe now might be a bit of a surprise, but his record as a head coach has been pretty solid.
Bylsma led the team to the Stanley Cup after taking over for Michel Therrien in the latter portion of the 2008-09 season. The team has not advanced past the Eastern Conference Final in the five seasons since, though.
Over his six years with the club, Bylsma never had a winning percentage below .600 and Bylsma won the Jack Adams as NHL coach of the year in 2011, but the playoff failings were apparently too much for ownership.
Considering the team's success over the regular season of late amid many injuries to key players and a lack of suitable depth should be considered a rather positive thing. Bylsma may have gotten the most out of the roster Shero built for him.
Relieving Shero may be the right move at this time for the Penguins, at least to the team's ownership, but it's hard to imagine he will be out of work for long. Both the Vancouver Canucks and Washington Capitals are seeking a new general manager and Shero's record likely gets him heavy consideration from both.
The postseason collapse certainly expedited the possibility of Shero being replaced and leaves Bylsma twisting in the wind a bit. While the postseason failings of the last few years have been disappointing and sometimes baffling, what would have happened if the Penguins advanced to the next round? It's interesting how that works out.
The next general manager of the Penguins is going to have an interesting situation to work with.
Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin remain young and talented and remain the kinds of players you'd love to build off of. Whoever steps in has a nice core to work with, but ensuring the long-term health of this roster with a lighter prospect pipeline and only 12 roster players under contract for next season, there will be some challenges.
That said, with the group the team has at the top of its lineup, there will remain potential as a Stanley Cup contender. Interesting days lay ahead for this organization.