Changes are coming in Pittsburgh but they're not going to be the right ones. After the Penguins punted a 3-1 series lead and home Game 7 to the Rangers, you can bet any amount of money you like that coach Dan Bylsma will be fired. Only because it's easier to fire a coach than it is to find six decent forwards.
Bylsma's axing is inevitable but it won't be wholly fair. People in Pittsburgh won't like to hear this but these Penguins were never going to win a Stanley Cup with the roster as it's currently constituted. Though the company line is that GM Ray Shero has done all in his power to surround the two greatest offensive collaborators in the game today — Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin — with the talent they need to once again win it all, that's clearly not the case. Bylsma's going to get the blame, but Shero's the reason this team needs to be broken up.
A lot is going to be made of the fact that Crosby scored a single goal in this series. So many awful columns are on their way (here's one now!). Why didn't Bylsma do more with him? Why couldn't he will the team to victory? That's what elite players and coaches do: They rise to the occasion. But the team that dominated score-close possession (56.5 percent corsi-for) was also fairly unlucky (Crosby's 5.26 shooting percentage in the series was right in line with the Penguins' 5.1 mark as a team).
Plus, look at what Crosby was saddled with. Chris Kunitz — a fine player but no world-beater — was a constant on his line, but everything else for most of the series, and in Game 7 in particular, was a mess. Sometimes you'd get Malkin on the wing, but more often it was Lee Stempniak or Brian Gibbons over there, providing very little in the way of positive play (a combined four shot attempts between them last night). You probably owe it to Crosby to give him a little bit more help than that. Bylsma only had so much to work with.
Pascal Dupuis is Crosby's regular linemate, but he's been injured since late December. Like Kunitz, he's one of those guys whose points and possession totals are dragged to something resembling impressiveness through Crosby's talent alone. The biggest reason for this latest Penguins disappointment can be summed up pretty succinctly: Shero couldn't find more than two or three guys who can mesh with the best player in the world, and none would have been top-line players on any truly competitive team.
Crosby and Malkin are giants in this sport, and Kunitz and James Neal provide good-to-very-good sidekick services depending on the particular night (and whether Neal decides he wants to play smart hockey, which isn't always a given). Beyond that, it's tough to say who the next-best Penguins forward is. It's probably Jussi Jokinen, a solid 60-point guy in his time with Pittsburgh, but it's a pretty steep drop to him, and even steeper after. The rest is a mishmash of names that most national audiences will have only heard in passing: Brian Gibbons, Brandon Sutter, Joe Vitale, Tanner Glass, Craig Adams, Lee Stempniak, Marcel Goc. And that's after adding those last two guys at the deadline.
Between the second and third periods, Jeremy Roenick and Keith Jones both agreed that this is a forward group that should be good enough to win a Stanley Cup, but that statement can't be based on anything real. For one thing, even a quick look at the numbers shows that the reason the Pens win most nights is down to Crosby and Malkin. But even without a cursory glance at the third and fourth lines' meager possession stats, how can you watch this roster and compare it to the one the Penguins had last time they won a Cup? In that title-clinching Game 7, the Penguins iced a considerably deeper roster, which included the likes of Jordan Staal and Bill Guerin. It must be noted that the Penguins' inability to succeed deep in the playoffs arose around the time Staal was traded to Carolina, and scuttled the team's previous bottom-six dominance.
Make no mistake, this series loss does come down to the lack of forward depth: The Penguins, even with their patchwork defense and shaky goaltending, only allowed 15 goals in the entire series, because the Rangers struggled almost as mightily going forward as they did. New York's much-maligned power play? Three goals. Pittsburgh's? Just one for 20.
As a result, it didn't even matter to anyone that Marc-Andre Fleury only stopped 87 of 98 over the last four games of the series (.888), because there was no one to put the puck in the net at the other end; Pittsburgh beat Lundqvist just 13 times in 423:06, and that's going to grab a lot of headlines.
When the Rangers, coached by a guy who's very smart with his defensive scheming, are able to focus solely on Crosby and Malkin because they know no one else really poses that much of a threat, then this is going to be the result. Tanner Glass and Brandon Sutter don't beat you in a Game 7, and thus you're free to swarm like bees around the two best players in the world. This is what people are referring to when they say Alain Vigneault "outcoached" Bylsma, but the Penguins' weakness was so glaring, anyone would have seized on it.
The talk in Pittsburgh now is that there's too much money tied up in the core, and that's true. The talk elsewhere is that too much of that money is tied up in Evgeni Malkin, and that he might get shuffled off somewhere else as punishment. Great though he was throughout these playoffs — 14 points in 13 games, and a corsi share in the 60s — and bad-on-paper as Crosby was, Malkin's not the face of the franchise, or the guy viewed as saving the team from a fate worse than death (relocation to the Midwest). He does take up $9.5 million of the salary cap, but if you're looking to load dead money off your books, he's not where you start. You start with Dupuis or Kunitz or Neal, guys who are getting big bucks for what they contribute, and are the only three other forwards even signed for next year.
This mess is on Shero, having $55.1 million going to 14 players total, only five of whom are forwards, and only two of whom are actual difference-makers on their own. The good news is he or his successor can clear out a lot of the dead weight in the bottom six — and there's a lot to clear out — but the bad news is he once again has to spend his cash wisely, something he's been unable to do in the past.
Then there's the money tied up in the defense and goaltending. What Fleury gives you, especially in the playoffs, can't be considered worth $5 million, nor can Scuderi regularly getting buried at even strength for nearly $3.4 million. Kris Letang isn't worth $7.25 million. These are real concerns over misallocation of cap resources, because that money could be going to shore up the forward group.
Moreover, the pipeline of forward prospects, which helps to control depth costs, isn't exactly bountiful. And that's because Shero hasn't drafted particularly well. He was hired just prior to the 2006 draft, so how many of the 24 forwards he selected since then were on the roster for this series? One. Beau Bennett, who wasn't in the lineup for Game 7. Everyone else either predated Shero's reign or was brought in via free agency and trade.
So no, Dan Bylsma didn't do as good a job as he could have against Vigneault, and good craftsmen don't blame their tools and all that. He absolutely shares some of the blame. He might have even "lost the room," which is now in need of a "new voice." These are things you say when a team has a good roster, not a great one, and no flexibility to fix it. Coaches' salaries don't count against the cap. They're expendable.
But you also can't give a coach a nail file, then expect him to act like it's a top-of-the-line chainsaw and bring down a tree. Bylsma wasn't overmatched by tactics, he was overmatched by personnel. The Penguins, they of the great regular season record, won until they ran into a team that was better than them. Don't see how you can blame a coach for that.