Throughout the conclusion of the regular season and the first round of the playoffs, I’ve taken a look back at the teams that have been eliminated along the way. Today, we take a look at the first squad knocked out of the second round: the Pittsburgh Penguins.
As one of the highest-profile teams in the NHL and the employer of Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin, it’s always an occasion for the hockey media when the Penguins get knocked out of the playoffs. Predictably, just hours after the final horn sounded on their Game 7 loss to the Rangers, the Internet was awash in reports and rumors that ownership was seething and ready to fire coach Dan Bylsma (and possibly GM Ray Shero), that the locker room was divided, and that everyone from Malkin to Kris Letang to James Neal would be traded. All of which may or may not happen, I suppose. The loss undoubtedly stings, coming as it did after blowing a 3-1 series lead against a long-time rival, but presumably Mario Lemieux and Ron Burkle will take a deep breath and realize that their only priority now is icing the best possible team in 2014-15. And to do that, they’ll need to look past the narrative and the bad luck to understand what really ails this team.
When viewed with enough distance, of course, things don’t look bad at all. Over the past seven seasons, the Penguins have hit 100 standings points five times; the only exceptions are their 99-point season in 2008-09, when they won the Stanley Cup, and the 48-game 2012-13 season, when they finished with the best record in the Eastern Conference. In the salary cap era, consistent excellence like this is not easy to come by. Of course, in the past five seasons, they’ve only reached the Conference Finals once, and have lost twice in the first round of the playoffs. Still, these losses could be attributed to bad luck rather than a more serious problem. Against the Canadiens in 2010 and the Rangers this year, Pittsburgh ran into a red-hot goaltender, and lost despite carrying the play during the series. In 2011, they entered the postseason without both Malkin and Crosby, who had suffered season-ending injuries. The following year, they had the misfortune to match up against an explosive Philadelphia offense, and goaltender Marc-Andre Fleury played some of the worst hockey of his career. And last season, they met another hot goalie in Tuukka Rask, and were picked apart by a strong Bruins team after winning two rounds. Look, I’m a Sharks fan: I understand that the playoffs don’t always go your way, even when your team is good. All you can do is assemble the best roster and the best coaches you can find, and take your shot in the postseason.
Still, when I took a look at Pittsburgh before the season started, I couldn’t help but notice some ominous cracks appearing in the foundation. Throughout their 2009 Cup run and the following three seasons, the backbone of the Penguins’ success was the third line of Jordan Staal, Matt Cooke, and Tyler Kennedy. Having a third line that could drive play despite tough match-ups and brutal defensive deployment allowed Bylsma to play Crosby and Malkin in more attacking roles; as a result, they were one of the most dominant possession teams in the NHL over that period. After the 2011-12 season, Staal was traded to Carolina, and young Brandon Sutter was brought in as the ostensible replacement. However, when it came to filling the role of a shutdown defensive center, Sutter was simply not capable of replacing Staal: throughout the 2012-13 season, Sutter was slaughtered in the tough match-ups that Staal had owned, and Pittsburgh’s possession numbers plunged below the 50% mark. Last summer, Cooke and Kennedy left the team, and it wasn’t obvious to me how the Penguins expected to defend opposing scorers. The answer to this, ultimately, was Crosby. In 2013-14, Bylsma shifted his captain into more of a two-way role, giving him more minutes and a heavier share of defensive zone starts than he had before. Crosby performed well in this role, and Pittsburgh’s shots-against numbers moved back down towards their 2009-2012 levels. On the down side, this meant that Pittsburgh’s shot creation rates fell as well, particularly later in the season when fatigue arguably set in. Of course, Crosby is a legendary high-percentage shooter, so fewer looks at the net didn’t affect his scoring rate: with 36 goals and 104 points, Crosby paced the NHL in scoring for the second time in his career, and is likely to capture his second Hart Trophy. Yet the decline in shots-for meant that the Penguins were fairly average as a possession team, and for the first time since 2010-11, they failed to pace the NHL in goals.
The basic problem here is one of roster depth. As much as Bylsma’s firing feels like a foregone conclusion after the loss to New York, coaching a team to a 109-point season and the second round of the playoffs despite massive injuries (particularly on the blueline) and questionable talent at the bottom of the roster seems more deserving of a Jack Adams nomination than a pink slip. Essentially, Pittsburgh has too few quality players trying to do too many things, and as good as those top players are, there was only so much they could give over an 82-game season and two rounds of the playoffs. The fault for this appears to lie squarely on Shero. The reputation of the Pens’ GM rests on a number of blockbuster moves he’s made over the years – acquiring a few months of Marian Hossa and several years of Pascal Dupuis from Atlanta for spare parts in 2008, acquiring 40-goal man Neal and puck-moving defenseman Matt Niskanen for a superfluous player in Alex Goligoski, getting a 60-point season from Jussi Jokinen in exchange for part of his salary and a low draft pick – but these moves have disguised a number of missteps, as well as a lack of attention to the finer details of roster construction. Bringing back defenseman Rob Scuderi as a free agent looks to be an unmitigated disaster; Scuderi was in obvious decline even before this season and struggled terribly in soft minutes for Pittsburgh, and his contract may make it impossible for the team to resign Niskanen, who had a strong season in a tougher role. More generally, for a team loaded on solid defensive prospects (including Olli Maatta, who made the team out of camp and ended up in top-4 minutes as a 19-year-old) and needing to get younger on the blueline, signing Scuderi was exactly the sort of wasteful, unnecessary move that well-run teams avoid. Shero has also failed in filling out the bottom six forward spots with capable players, either by drafting or through finding effective players on the cheap via free agency. Exacerbating this problem has been Shero’s habit of selling draft picks for veteran players at the trade deadline. As others have pointed out, the result is a team that’s as good as any other when Crosby and Malkin are on the ice, yet is one of the league’s worst when they’re off it. This issue was ultimately exposed in their playoff series against New York: it’s tough to beat a team with four lines when you only have two. While they played well against the Rangers, ultimately there was no one to pick up the slack when their two stars were shut down.
The path forward doesn’t get any easier, as Pittsburgh has a ton of decisions to make, and (with the max extensions for Malkin and Letang kicking in) not a ton of cap space to work with. Neal will make $5M per season for the next four years, and is one of Pittsburgh’s few young and productive players. Dupuis and Chris Kunitz will cost the team over $7.5M against the cap for the next three seasons; insofar as both are mid-30s wingers who have only justified these salaries when standing within ten feet of Crosby, these deals are probably a bit rich. Beyond these names, Crosby, and Malkin, however, the only forwards under contract for next season in Pittsburgh are Beau Bennett and the aging Craig Adams. The Penguins will likely try to sign Jokinen and Sutter to new deals, but will be better off parting ways with the likes of Lee Stempniak, Marcel Goc, Tanner Glass, and Chuck Kobasew. On defense, things get even trickier. Paul Martin is entering the last year of his contract, and it’s hard to say what the team should do with him. On one hand, at $5M, Martin is a steal for a top-pairing defenseman who plays 25 minutes a night against tough match-ups, and handles both ends of special teams; he was tremendous when matched with Letang for much of the postseason. On the other hand, Martin has missed significant stretches of the past two seasons with injuries, and at 33, the type of deal he’s likely to command could include some declining years. Forced into a top-pairing role by injuries, Niskanen had a strong season, and will likely be a hot commodity on the free-agent market; to justify paying the price, you have to believe that he’s capable of sustaining that level of play moving forward, but honestly, some team will end up paying that price. Long-time Pen Brooks Orpik has been in decline for years, and will likely depart for a new deal elsewhere, along with Deryk Engelland. One wonders if trade offers will be forthcoming for young Simon Despres; Despres has excelled in sheltered minutes in the NHL, but the team seems loathe to play him much. As such, the Pittsburgh blueline could look very different next season, as top prospects like Derrick Pouliot and Brian Dumoulin could make the leap to the big club. In goal, Fleury is entering the final year of his contract, signed in what feels like a lifetime ago in 2008. With Tomas Vokoun a free agent and likely to retire, Pittsburgh may look for another veteran backup; they could also seek out another starter to take Fleury’s place. Whether the team is ready or not, changes are most likely coming this offseason.
Other Teams Fall Apart posts: Buffalo, Florida and Edmonton, Calgary, Winnipeg and the NY Islanders, Vancouver, Toronto, Ottawa, New Jersey, Washington, Carolina, Nashville, and Phoenix, Tampa Bay, Detroit, St. Louis, Dallas and Columbus, Philadelphia, Colorado, and San Jose.