Unlike previous postseason failures by the Penguins, this one didn't catch anyone by surprise. It was almost as if Tuesday's exit from the postseason was anticipated as soon as they opened the regular season ... heck... the preseason.
In 2010, the Penguins lost to an overachieving Canadiens team with a hot goaltender.
In 2011, the Penguins lost more to injuries than they did the Lightning.
In 2012, the Penguins lost to a lack of discipline and a Flyers team which knew how to exploit it.
In 2013, the Penguins lost after running into a brick wall in the form of the Bruins.
In 2014, the Penguins just.... lost.
With all due respect to the Rangers and elite goaltender Henrik Lundqvist, they beat a Penguins team which wasn't particularly challenging.
There is no shortage of reasons the 2013-14 Penguins weren't a difficult foe in the postseason. Here are ten aspects of this team which much be examined this offseason.
1.) Missed Message
While waiting for a press conference with a typically tardy Dan Bylsma a few years ago, a team executive joked to a group of grumbling, impatient reporters that, "Dan is on his own schedule."
That was hardly the only thing he has crafted to his liking.
In the five full seasons Bylsma has been at the helm for the Penguins since winning the 2009 Stanley Cup, he has forged this team's identity into his own. That has resulted in five mostly marvelous regular seasons and five unsatisfying postseasons.
From a tactical standpoint, several portions of the system the team played overwhelmed or confused current and former players, particularly on defense. Ben Lovejoy was a middling borderline NHL defenseman with the Penguins. After being traded to the Ducks early in the 2012-13 season, he became a top-four defenseman for head coach Bruce Boudreau who by his own admission, likes "to keep things simple."
The Penguins' unyielding adherence to their system rarely allowed for any flexibility for the unique skillsets of players. As a result, marvelously talented players such Simon Despres and Beau Bennett have either languished in roles below their abilities at the NHL level or have been marooned in the AHL while trust and ice time has been given to players with limited abilities such as Deryk Engelland and Chris Conner.
While Bennett and Despres are hardly without blame for their stagnant development, no one can fairly say they were put in a position to succeed.
Beyond the X's and O's, the adage that "every coach is hired to be fired" appears to have finally come true for Bylsma.
When Bylsma took over as head coach for Michel Therrien in the middle of the 2008-09 season, Therrien's strict message had become lost on the players. A new voice was needed. Bylsma was inserted behind the bench on an interim basis and eventually pushed the team from 10th place in the Eastern Conference standings to a Stanley Cup title.
Five years later, Bylsma's voice, far different than Therrien's, has become lost on these players as well.
Earlier this season, following a practice, the media entered the Penguins' dressing room only to see players making a hurried rush to get undressed out of their hockey equipment in order to attend an off-ice meeting. One player with a very secure spot on the roster was holding court with the media. When reminded by a team employee that the meeting was about to begin, the player responded, "I don't need to go to that."
Bylsma's not the first coach to lose a team like that. It happened to his predecessor and it will happen to his successor. When it does happen, change is inevitable.
2.) Death of Depth
After Game 7 of the 2009 Stanley Cup final, Red Wings coach Mike Babcock addressed the potential for the Penguins to become a regular Stanley Cup contender much like his own team. Babcock remarked, "Correct me if I'm wrong, doesn't [Evgeni] Malkin go from ($350,000) to $8.7 (million)? There just goes two more players. It's called math."
A half decade later, a quick glance at CapGeek.com's Penguins page will show exactly what Babcock's arithmetic forecast.
Heading into this offseason, the Penguins have only 14 players on the NHL roster signed into next season or beyond. With the NHL salary cap estimated to be in the neighborhood of $71 million, Those 14 players already account for a whopping $55,119,167 of cap space. That leaves roughly $15 million and change to fill out the rest of a roster which was already staggeringly weak in depth, particularly with the bottom six forwards.
This falls at the feet of general manager Ray Shero.
The Penguins were always going to be hamstrung this season with their payroll. With the NHL's salary cap taking a drop to $64.3 million as a condition of the new collective bargaining agreement signed after the 2012-13 lockout, the Penguins opted to part ways with the reliable Matt Cooke and the fading Tyler Kennedy from their third line. In years past, other sturdy bottom-sixers such as Arron Asham, Mike Rupp, Mark Letestu and Maxime Talbot were let go for various reasons.
A season-ending injury to first-liner Pascal Dupuis in December stretched the already paper-thin depth on the bottom six even further. Trade deadline deals for Marcel Goc and Lee Stempniak addressed the issue but only minimally.
In their second round loss to the Rangers, the Penguins got one goal from players primarily playing bottom six forward roles. That was from Stempniak. In contrast, the Rangers got five goals from their bottom sixers, including both of their goals via Brian Boyle and Brad Richards in their 2-1 win during Game 7.
The team's depth up front was expected to be an issue heading into the season and it was never truly addressed. That leads to the next issue.
3.) Cold Drafts
Shero has been at the helm of the Penguins for eight drafts. Those drafts have produced four forwards who have played an NHL game for the Penguins:
Beau Bennett (above)
Staal was a slam dunk. Jeffrey was a serviceable player before a knee injury wrecked his career. Caputi had a cup of coffee in the NHL. And Bennett is still a work in progress. Beyond that, the Penguins have scraped nothing out of their drafts at the forward position while stocking up on defense.
The Penguins team which just exited the postseason had one forward in the lineup for any of their postseason games who was drafted under Shero. In contrast, the Blue Jackets, a team which has had a great deal of internal turmoil throughout its history and far fewer resources, had four players in the lineup who have been drafted since 2006, Shero's first draft:
All four of those players played significant role for the Columbus.
The Rangers, the Penguins' second round opponent, had five draft picks in the lineup as well:
Hagelin, Stepan and Kreider all played significant roles in their team's victory against the Penguins.
To simply say this is a drafting problem may not be accurate or fair. It might be development issue as well. This past regular season, the Wilkes-Barre/Scranton Penguins' top six scorers were players not drafted by the current management group. The only forward drafted by Shero and company to even break the 20-point mark at the AHL level was Dominik Uher, a fifth-round pick in 2011. He had 24 points in 68 games this season.
One of the reasons for a the dearth of serviceable forwards drafted by the team has been the team's penchant for trading draft picks for immediate help. The celebrated acquisitions of Georges Laraque, Marian Hossa, Pascal Dupuis, Jarome Iginla and Bill Guerin as well as the lesser trades involving the likes of Mathieu Garon, Jordan Leopold and Douglas Murray all helped the team to varying degrees in the immediate sense but stripped the team of future assets which presumably could be helping right now.
Many amateur general managers with a local perspective are critical of Shero for not drafting Brandon Saad, a native of Gibsonia. Plenty of revisionist historians conveniently overlook the fact Saad had a lousy final season of junior hockey due to an injury and simply look at the Stanley Cup ring he won with Chicago in 2013 and his zip code. They ignore the fact that 20 general managers, including Chicago's Stan Bowman, passed over Saad between the Penguins selecting Joe Morrow and Saad going to the Blackhawks.
They also tend to ignore that Jenner, selected six picks ahead of Saad in that same draft, gave the Penguins fits in the first round of this season's playoffs. Jenner, presuming he would be given a fair chance with the current coaching staff, would have been a perfect fit for this team right now on the third line.
Instead of potentially having either Jenner at their disposal, the Penguins were forced to rely on the likes of Tanner Glass, Brian Gibbons, Matt D'Agostini, Chris Conner, Taylor Pyatt, Andrew Ebbett, Deryk Engelland, Joe Vitale, Chuck Kobasew, Harry Zolnierczyk, Jayson Megna, Zack Sill and others to play significant bottom six minutes for them this season.
4.) Rebound control
After Marc-Andre Fleury watched the bulk of the 2013 playoffs from the bench, there was plenty of reason to question what his place on this team was. Armed with two compliance buyouts as a condition of the new CBA, the Penguins could have used one on Fleury and been completely relieved of his healthy $5 million salary cap hit. They would have been justified in that decision given Fleury's flame out last postseason.
Instead, days after being swept out of the playoffs by the Bruins, management proclaimed him their starting goaltender for the 2013-14 campaign before the 2013 offseason truly began. But they did much, much more than simply boost his public persona.
They asked Fleury to see a sports psychologist and provided him a new goaltending coach in Mike Bales.
The result was a much more focused and mature Fleury who rebounded to provide the Penguins a stable presence in net. In the wake of Tomas Vokoun's bout with blood clots, the Penguins needed Marc-Andre Fleury to be their best player most nights.
Fleury didn't win the Penguins any games in this playoff season. At the same time, he didn't lose any (with the considerable exception of Game 4 in Columbus). But he gave them something which he individually had not done with consistency for approximately five years. He provided them a chance to win just about every game he played in.
Fleury has one year remaining on his current contract heading into 2014-15 and few players on this roster should have any sense of job security. If for no other reason than the difficulty at finding reliable options at the goaltending position, Fleury's role with the Penguins moving forward should be secure.
5.) Centers of attention
The Penguins never really had a "three-center model" when they employed Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin and Jordan Staal. It was a "chance-to-draft-three-pretty-good-centers model" more than anything. Either way, when Crosby, Malkin and Staal were doing their thing, they presented problems for opposing teams which no other squad in the NHL could provide.
If a team had the defensive depth to limit Crosby or even Malkin, that usually left Staal the opportunity to rack up solid 20-goal totals while feasting on third defensive pairings or fourth-line centers.
When Staal was traded in 2012 to Carolina, the primary return was Brandon Sutter. No one expected him to be just like Jordan Staal but it was presumed he could take advantage of being the third center on this depth chart and would offer a similar dynamic.
The author of this blog felt Sutter could be a regular 20-goal scorer with such a dynamic. He showed some flashes of that scoring ability while centering Matt Cooke and Tyler Kennedy in the lockout-shorted 2012-13 season. Many of his goals ended up being big goals at key moments in games.
This past season Sutter slugged it out through a mostly unproductive campaign while being saddled with a parade of mostly mediocre crew of borderline NHLers on his wings. When Matt D'Agostini is the first option, something has gone wrong.
That doesn't excuse Sutter's unremarkable season. As a third line center, it was difficult to say he even had much of a noticeable impact in the defensive end of the game. At the very least, a defensive center should be above average in the faceoff circle. Sutter won only 47.7 of his draws this season.
The talent is there in Sutter's game. He shows it every once in a while. Teamed with a slightly higher caliber of winger, he elevated his game throughout the first round of the playoff against the Blue Jackets while Crosby and Malkin struggled to produce. But far too often, that talent doesn't translate into offering a significant impact on a game. That led Ray Shero to kick the tires on Vancouver's Ryan Kesler at the trade deadline.
The Penguins need to find some stable, competent NHL-caliber wingers for their third line. If they can do that, Sutter, a pending restricted free agent this summer, must find his game and help this team restore its dominance down the middle.
6.) Confounded by Crosby
That's all the Penguins got from Sidney Crosby's stick in the playoffs.
One stinking goal.
Granted, it was a nice goal and it came against a superstar in Henrik Lundqvist, but one isn't nearly enough from the league's presumed Hart Trophy winner.
Trying to evaluate Crosby's game through these playoffs seemed to create more questions than answers. If the hard numbers looked bad, his play on ice sometimes looked outright atrocious.
Plays which were available on in January and February against the Panthers and Hurricanes weren't available in April and May against the Blue Jackets and Rangers. Those little passes in tight spaces which ended up buried behind a goaltender were usually broken up by a defender's stick, skate or leg. Crosby, who repeatedly denied he was dealing with any sort of health issue, almost defiantly played these playoffs the same exact way he played mostly meaningless contests against non-playoff teams in the regular season.
Many of the advanced statistics will tell you Crosby has an immense positive impact on most games for his team and they are correct. The Penguins possessed the puck in the offensive zone throughout much of the playoffs thanks to the talents of Crosby.
The naked eye will also tell you Crosby wasn't nearly as much of a force for his team as a player of his stature should be.
Heaping everything on Crosby isn't fair to him. The loss of Pascal Dupuis proved to be far more significant to Crosby and the rest of the team as many would forecast. And as mentioned above, the team's limited depth allowed opposing defenses to focus more on Crosby and Malkin. Another aspect which should not be overlooked is lack of urgency in winning the matchup battle from the coaching staff. Call up any Penguins game on ShiftChart.com and you'll see Crosby routinely drawing assignments against opponent's top defensive pairings and defensive centers.
Ultimately, Crosby needs to be the Penguins' best player for them to have any success in the springtime. He failed to be that the past four weeks.
7.) Ask more from Neal
James Neal is a lot of things. Many of them are good. He has one of the best releases by any goal-scorer in the NHL and he has teamed with Evgeni Malkin to provide on of the best forward tandems in the NHL.
Neal is also a lot of bad things. He's the player who tends to take bad penalties when his team least needs them. He took a poor holding minor against Rangers defenseman Marc Staal late in the first period and nullified a power play which could have tied the game.
He's the player who tries to settle personal scores with opponent such as when he kneed a vulnerable Brad Marchand of Boston in the head in December and earned a suspension.
He's also the player off the ice who can be petulant in his dealings with team and arena employees as well as media. When a team-initiated Twitter campaign involving Neal was hijacked by fans primarily from Boston and Philadelphia, he protested his involvement in it with team employees in front of several members of the media. While Neal has no obligation to be an agreeable human being, particularly with those in the media, it's apparently a significant enough problem that Penguins management and teammates have addressed him repeatedly about it.
Of greater importance, Neal's lack in production in the postseason has become a far too common occurrence. In 2011, Neal was stuck on a "top" line with an aging Alex Kovalev and a hobbled Mark Letestu and was playing a top line. In 2012, after helping Malkin win the Art Ross Trophy, Neal had nearly as many games missed due to suspension (one) as he did goals. In 2013, Neal did produce a respectable 10 points in 13 games while dealing with some sort of leg injury but like many of his teammates, disappeared in an Eastern Conference final sweep to the Bruins.
This year, Neal, while playing much of the postseason on a separate line than Malkin, could only scrape out two goals in 12 postseason games. He has as many penalty minutes in the final six games of the second round series against the Rangers as shots (20).
If James Neal is going to be a part of this team's future, he needs to be far more reliable on and off the ice.
8.) Sticking with Scuderi
On paper, it's an idea which still makes a lot of sense.
In practice, it never took place.
Wanting to find a stable, stay-at-home partner for Kris Letang after having invested an eight-year deal into him, the Penguins turned to a familiar face in Rob Scuderi.
Having said failing to re-sign Scuderi was a "mistake" after the 2009 Stanley Cup championship when he spoke to the media last summer, Shero was asked if there was any hesitation in giving a player with several years of abuse on his then 34-year-old body. Shero said the price of signing a player in the NHL these days was more and more dependent on the length of the deal.
With the Kings, Scuderi was teamed with Slava Voynov and Drew Doughty and helped them develop into high-end offensive defensemen. The hope was he would do the same for Letang.
A preseason knee injury to Letang, a mid-season ankle injury to Scuderi, a mid-season elbow injury to Letang and a late season stroke by Letang limited the regular season games the two played together to 16.
While primarily paired with Matt Niskanen the first month of the season, Scuderi was pretty sturdy until he suffered a broken ankle Oct. 26. After returning over two months later, Scuderi's game wasn't the same. He was slow to react to opposing players and more often than not, out of position in his own zone. As the playoffs progressed, he was relegated to third defensive pairing minutes.
Scuderi will likely get another chance to saddle up next to Letang next season primarily because his contract is difficult to move. With a salary cap hit of $3.375 million, trying to find a potential trade partner willing to take on that entire number is unlikely. And since Scuderi's deal was signed in 2013, he is ineligible for a compliance buyout which would relieve the Penguins of his entire salary cap hit.
Rob Scuderi will likely be a Pittsburgh Penguin next season and he will likely be better than he was this past season.
He has to be on both fronts.
9.) Defensive Dilemma
Like the forward and goaltending positions, the Penguins group of defensemen deserve to be put under a microscope.
Unlike the forward and goaltending positions, the Penguins have plenty of internal options to turn over this group should they choose.
As noted above, the Penguins have not drafted forwards very well. Part of that is due to an adherence of focusing on defensemen.
In eight of Shero's drafts, four of his first-round picks have been defensemen. Three have been forwards.
(The Penguins did not have first-rounders in 2008 or 2013 and had two in 2012.)
Currently in Wilkes-Barre/Scranton, the team has Simon Despres, Philip Samuelsson, Scott Harrington, Brian Dumoulin, Nick D'Agostino, Reid McNeil and Harrison Ruopp. Additionally, 2012 first-rounder Derrick Pouliot just concluded his junior career.
If the team opts to part ways with pending unrestricted free agents Matt Niskanen, Brooks Orpik and Deryk Engelland or even finds a way to unload the three years remaining on the contract of Rob Scuderi, there are plenty of high-end options to replace those players.
If nothing else, the team can move some of these defensive prospects for help at the forward position. It's an approach the team has employed previously but hasn't used quite as much in recent seasons.
Either way, the Penguins have a ton of defensive prospects. It's time to do something with them.
10.) Moving on
The Penguins of the early 1990s had immense success having won two Stanley Cup titles in 1991 and 1992 and the President's Trophy in 1993.
Eventually, that group had to be broken up.
After a second-round exit to the New Jersey Devils in 1995, Penguins general manager Craig Patrick swept away many remnants of those teams and went in a new direction. While franchise pillars such as Mario Lemieux, Jaromir Jagr, Ron Francis and Tom Barrasso kept their jobs, stalwarts such as John Cullen, Grant Jennings, Shawn McEachern, Kevin Stevens, Joe Mullen, Peter Taglianetti, Kjell and Ulf Samuelsson were shown the door. In their place came the likes of Dmitri Mironov, Glen Murray, Bryan Smolinski, Sergei Zubov and others.
Granted, Patrick's motivation to make change at time probably had more to do with a dwindling supply of cash from owner Howard Baldwin's pockets but change was clearly needed at that time for that group of championship Penguins.
The Penguins which won the 2009 Stanley Cup appear to have hit that threshold.
With the exceptions of Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin and possibly Marc-Andre Fleury, no one on this roster should have any job security.
In some cases, an expiring contract such as Brooks Orpik's will take care of itself. In other cases, Penguins management must explore every option even with players who have long-term deals with limited no-movement clauses such as James Neal.
Change came for the Penguins of the early 1990s. The Penguins of the late 2000s, a group with a far less impressive list of accomplishments, deserve nothing less.
(Photos: Justin K. Aller/Getty Images, Bruce Bennett/Getty Images, Kirk Irwin/Getty Images, Gene J. Puskar/Associated Press, Jamie Sabau/Getty Images, Jared Wickerham/Getty Images, Elsa/Getty Images, Post-Gazette archives and Pittsburgh Penguins)