The day after (after ... after) - 06-10-13

Written by Seth Rorabaugh on .

(That is decidedly not the weather we had in Pittsburgh this morning but you get the idea.)

There haven't been many teams like the one the Penguins constructed entering this postseason, at least not in the salary cap era.

As a result of the lockout and salary cap space made available due to the shortened season, the Penguins had the luxury of adding four Olympians to a roster which was already stacked. With the salary cap going down this offseason, it's doubtful you'll see another team like this in the lifespan of the current collective bargaining agreement.

After two fairly convincing playoff series wins against the two lowest seeded teams in the Eastern Conference, the Penguins' dynamic offense, which was producing at rate in the neighborhood of the 1985 Oilers, could only scrape out two goals in four games against the Bruins in the Eastern Conference Final.

In no way shape or form could this season be lumped up as anything other than a failure. Nothing short of a Stanley Cup was acceptable for this collection of talent. The Penguins gave up quite a few future assets to assemble this squad and they didn't even get an Eastern Conference champions hat in return for it.

Placing blame on any one individual or any specific aspect of this team would be foolish. Everyone seemed to have an hand in this. To paraphrase "Full Metal Jacket," it's a crud sandwich, and everyone needs to take a bite.

Here's 10 issues the Penguins' need to address as they enter what could be the most important offseason in Ray Shero's tenure as general manager:

1.) Fleury's future

During his season-ending press conference yesterday, head coach Dan Bylsma proclaimed Marc-Andre Fleury as the "franchise goaltender." Short of writing up the lineup card for the 2013-14 season opener, Bylsma did everything he could to convince the world Fleury is still an elite goaltender.

Bylsma's motivations for making such a strong statement could be rooted in multiple fronts.

First, Bylsma may have been pumping Fleury's tires for the sake of his trade value. Part of trading a player in the NHL is being a car salesman. The rest of the NHL can see Fleury's struggles in recent postseasons clear as day. But if the Penguins have any hope of trading him for any reasonable asset in return, offering a harsh assessment of his performance, even if true, will do nothing to raise any potential return for him.

Second, the Penguins might just be stuck with Fleury. If so, why would the organization not do what it could to inflate his confidence? What purpose would it serve for Bylsma to be harsh of Fleury or to even leave any question publicly as to what his value is to the franchise?

At $5 million, Fleury's salary cap hit is a lot to absorb for a player who might not be the starting goaltender entering the next regular season let alone the postseason. As a result of the new collective bargaining agreement, the Penguins have the option of using a compliance buyout on Fleury in order to relive themselves of his hefty cap figure. That is certainly an option worth exploring but who would replace him?

Tomas Vokoun had a wonderful postseason for the Penguins and gave the team its best chance at winning the Stanley Cup after Fleury struggled against the Islanders in the quarterfinal round. But to expect a goaltender with a recent history of injuries and who will turn 37 next month to play the bulk of games in a full 82-game schedule would be foolish. If the Penguins want to turn to Vokoun as a starter, he must be platooned.

The Penguins platooned Vokoun and Fleury this past season over a shortened 48-game schedule. That resulted in them merely being the top overall seed in the Eastern Conference.

If the Penguins do jettison Fleury, the options on the free agent market are slim.

Phoenix's Mike Smith is intriguing but he is coming off a season which was partially derailed by injuries. Additionally, questions persist if his limited success if the product of Phoenix's strong defensive system and/or the tutelage of goaltending coach Sean Burke. Would a change of scenery for Smith result in similar struggles former Coyotes goaltender Ilya Bryzgalov has experienced in Philadelphia?

Minnesota's Niklas Backstrom has been an all-star in this league but like Vokoun, he's in his late 30s and has dealt with recent injuries. Not many teams want two older goaltender with recent histories of injuries.

As with Backstrom, the Islanders' Tim Thomas and Evgeni Nabokov, the Oilers' Nikolai Khabibulin and the Panthers' Jose Theodore are all in similar situations. All are in the latter stages of their careers and have recent histories of health issues.

The Blackhawks' Ray Emery, the Predators' Chris Mason and the Lightning's Mathieu Garon are all bargain bin options with more question marks than answers.

The Kings' Jonathan Bernier is scheduled a restricted free agent this offseason. A high-end talent who was drafted No. 11 overall in 2006, Bernier is stuck behind Conn Smythe winner Jonathan Quick. The Kings could deal Bernier's signing rights for a hefty return. But the market for him could be fierce. Will the Penguins want to deal away even more future assets after dealing away several draft picks at this past trade deadline?

The Canucks' Roberto Luongo and the Sabres Ryan Miller each appear to be on the trading block but like Fleury, both players have struggled under the weight of immense postseason pressure. Acquiring one of those players could be a lateral move in terms of the impact they have on the ice. Additionally, both players have higher salary cap hits than Fleury. If part of the team's motivation to rid themselves of Fleury is financially based, adding Luongo and Miller would not makes sense.

Internally, the Penguins don't have any immediate options to replace Fleury. Eric Hartzell, the Quinnipiac star the Penguins signed after the NCAA season concluded, is viewed as a long-term project. Jeff Zatkoff, signed to a two-way contract through 2013-14, had an outstanding season as the main starter with the Wilkes-Barre/Scranton and has been an all-star at the AHL level. But his credentials as an NHL-caliber player, let alone one who would be depended on for 40 or more starts a season, are highly questionable.

Additionally, what says Fleury's issues aren't correctable? Would a new goaltending coach - whether it's in Pittsburgh or elsewhere - help Fleury fix his game? We address that possibility in more depth in the second point.

There are plenty of viable reasons for the Penguins to part ways with Fleury but there might be more reasons to keep him.

2.) Coaching Changes

At the 2012 Dapper Dan Dinner and Sports Auction, Dan Bylsma as well as former Bears and Saints coach Mike Ditka were each honored. While he coached a completely different sport, Ditka offered a piece of pretty universal advice for Byslma in his speech.

Essentially Ditka said, when things are going well as a coach, everyone loves you. When things aren't going good, everyone wants to fire you.

That's where Bylsma is in the 2013 offseason.

Since he became head coach in 2009, the Penguins have a 201-92-25 record, one of the best in the NHL over that span. In addition to winning one Atlantic Division title, the Penguins have played in 11 postseason series since 2009. Only the Bruins and Blackhawks, this season's finalists for the Stanley Cup, have played in more in that span with 12 each.

The Penguins have had one of the best runs of success in the four plus years Bylsma has been at the helm. There are few teams who wouldn't want him as a head coach.

That's all well and good but the fact remains the Penguins only have one Stanley Cup banner since he's been the head coach. For a team with the impressive collection of talent it can boast, that's not nearly enough.

An adage in all sports, especially in hockey, is that every coach is hired to be fired.

Potentially firing Bylsma is a move which could be justified on many fronts. The team has failed to get past the conference final since winning the Stanley Cup in 2009. Additionally, in their playoff defeats, the Penguins have seemed to suffer from multiple structure breakdowns defensively with the exception of 2011 when injuries and Matt Cooke's immense suspension were bigger culprits than anything else. In some cases, such as against the Flyers in 2012, Bylsma was simply outcoached.

Bylsma's unflinching adherence to his system is another issue. Until the desperation of a 2-0 series deficit forced them to change, the Penguins tried to attack the stacked Bruins blue line the same way they tried to attack the short-handed defenses of the Islanders and Senators. Being confident in a well-crafted approach can be noble but it can be stubborn as well.

A potential dismissal of Bylsma is not a move without ramifications however.

His predecessor, Michel Therrien, was a very different coach in terms of his relationship with players. Basically, Therrien was a taskmaster who rode the players hard. While Bylsma is very demanding of his players, no one would confuse him with Therrien in terms of his demeanor. Unlike Therrien, Bylsma is very popular with his players. Bylsma may bristle at the notion that he is a "player's coach, but for better or worse, that is what he has become.

With franchise players Evgeni Malkin and Kris Letang permitted to sign long-term contract extensions this offseason, could a change at top could impact their decisions to remain with the Penguins? Like it or not, star players need their egos placated. The Rangers made a decision to fire head coach John Tortorella last month largely based on his less than rosy relationship with star goaltender Henrik Lundqvist. The Penguins could make a decision to retain Byslma based on his strong relationship with Malkin and Letang.

That doesn't mean changes won't be made to the rest of the staff.

Goaltending coach Gilles Meloche could be most likely member of the staff to vacate his position. Having served as a scout and assistant coach for parts of four decades, has been a part of many highs and lows with the Penguins. Amongst the highs is that he is one of the few people who were a part of all three of the organization's Stanley Cup titles. Amongst the lows is the struggles of Fleury under his watch since winning the Stanley Cup in 2009.

Much like a pitching coach in baseball or quarterback coach in football, a goaltending coach's role in hockey is part technician and part psychiatrist. The postseason struggles of Fleury, who would never be confused with Ken Dryden when it comes to technique, appears to be a mental in some fashion. It is, or should be, Meloche's responsibility to iron out all those issues. Fleury and Meloche have a very strong relationship but the results clearly haven't been there the past four postseasons.

Meloche, 62, has been a loyal soldier for the organization but it might be time for a change.

Assistant coach Todd Reirden is another coach whose performance could be in question. A former head coach with the Wilkes-Barre/Scranton Penguins, Reirden has coached the defensemen at the NHL level for the past three seasons. He has been lauded, and justly so, for helping develop Letang into a Norris Trophy-caliber defenseman. That said, Letang is still prone to crippling mental errors most Norris Trophy winners don't make. In Game 4 of this postseason's semifinal round series against the Senators, Letang recorded four assists but was also directly involved in plays which led to all three of the Senators' goals that game.

Additionally, Simon Despres, a first-round pick in 2009, has failed to develop at a sufficient enough rate which would apparently merit a playing role over the likes of journeymen Mark Eaton or Deyrk Engelland.

Reirden does have some successes under his watch. Matt Niskanen's career was saved due in part to Reirden's instruction and he played a large role in Engelland, a former ECHL player, becoming an NHL player. But the fact remains the Penguins' blue line has been an issue for parts of the past three postseasons with Reirden at the wheel.

Tony Granato, who is in charge of the forwards and penalty kill, seems the least likely to be removed. While the penalty kill struggled in recent postseasons and this past regular season, it did finish with a success rate of 92.3 percent this past postseason.

3.) Capped out

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 much like his own team. Babcock asked, "Correct me if I'm wrong, doesn't Malkin go from ($350,000) to $8.7 (million)? There just goes two more players. It's called math."

What Babcock was referring to was the jump in salary Malkin went from his entry-level contract to his second contract. Some knocked him for supposedly displaying sour grapes. But Babcock was simply telling the truth.

The Penguins have A LOT of their salary cap tied up into a very defined core group of players.

Sidney Crosby.
Evgeni Malkin.
James Neal.
Marc-Andre Fleury.

Having that much payroll tied up in addition to the fact that the salary cap is dropping this offseason as part of the new collective bargaining agreement, Ray Shero's ability to re-sign complementary players such as Pascal Dupuis or major trade deadline acquisitions like Jarome Iginla is even tougher. As it stands, the Penguins are scheduled to have $7,876,667 of salary cap space this offseason according to

Additionally, the Penguins have decisions to make on Malkin and Letang who can sign extensions beginning this summer. Both are scheduled to become unrestricted free agents next summer.

As we stated before, a compliance buyout of Fleury would make those signings easier to pull off.

4.) Turn to the future

Another way of working within the confines of the salary cap would be turning to young prospects still on entry-level contracts.

Yesterday, Byslma proclaimed Despres a top four defenseman and right winger Beau Bennett a top-six forward. In the case of Despres, it's long overdue.

During his time with the Penguins, Bylsma has been slow to entrust rookies or young players with too much responsibility and has largely been more likely to trust marginal journeymen such as Mark Letesu or Eaton.

The Penguins never truly found a true top four defenseman after trading Zybnek Michalek last offseason. Instead, some combination of Eaton, Niskanen and Despres were used as a partner with Letang with varying degrees of success. Despres has the most upside amongst that trio but simply didn't earn the trust of the coaching staff. A true full-time commitment to Despres could stablize the blue line

Additionally, with the potential free agent losses of Iginla, Dupuis, Matt Cooke, Brenden Morrow and Tyler Kennedy, the Penguins are bound to have some holes up front on the wings. Bennett has shown an ability to play either wing and in a top six role. There may be still be questions about his durability over the course of 82 games, but Bennett proved he belongs at this level during his cup of coffee in the NHL this season.

The Penguins may truly turn to young players for the first time in a long time next season if for no other reason than they have to.

5.) Left wing leanings

In 2011-12, Chris Kunitz primarily manned the left wing on a line with Evgeni Malkin. Malkin won the Hart Trophy that season.

In 2012-13, Kunitz primarily manned the left wing on a line with Sidney Crosby. Crosby is a finalist for the Hart Trophy.

The only problem with Chris Kunitz is that there is only one of him. Crosby and Malkin each like him but only one of them can have them. For the time being, Crosby seems the favorite to keep him.

The Penguins tried a whole variety of players on Malkin's left wing this season. Eric Tangradi, Tanner Glass, Dustin Jeffrey, Kennedy, Zach Boychuk, Bennett, Cooke, Morrow, Iginla and for a brief spell, Kunitz. Some players such as Bennett and Iginla found success but very little of it was sustained.

Moving forward, the Penguins seem to have a few internal options to team with Malkin. As we stated above, Bennett has shown he belongs in a top-six role at this level. Jussi Jokinen, capable of playing all three forward positions, could be an intriguing fit, especially with his ability to take faceoffs in place of Malkin who struggles in that area.

Regardless of who the Penguins turn to, they must find a steady presence on that wing for Malkin and James Neal to play with.

6.) Dupuis' dilemma

The list of players who have had career years as they approach their mid-30s is pretty short.

The list of players who Sidney Crosby has found a sustained level of comfort with on his line is even shorter.

For that reason, Dupuis should be the Penguins' biggest priority amongst their pending unrestricted free agents this offseason.

Dupuis is coming off two impressive seasons in which he reached 20-goal in each campaign, including in 2012-13 in just 48 games. Much of that success has occurred despite multiple absences by Crosby as he recovered from various injuries. Not only has Dupuis found a home on Crosby's line but he's become an ideal fit in Dan Bylsma's system with the Penguins.

But at 33, this is his last best chance to cash in as a free agent. With a limited pool of free agents this offseason, Dupuis figures to be one of the biggest targets on the market.

Dupuis has proclaimed his love for the organization as well as the city and there is little reason to suggest his feelings are less than genuine. He seems to truly realize how ideal his situation is on and off the ice in Pittsburgh. But if a team offers a lucrative contract in the range of $5 million a season, could Dupuis be swayed to leave a sure thing with the Penguins?

7.) Iginla's enigma

In some ways, the Penguins' acquisition of Jarome Iginla was similar to their acquisition of Alex Kovalev in 2010. They acquired a name but not the same player who made that name.

That's not to say a healthy 35-year-old Jarome Iginla was as ineffective as a hobbled 38-year-old Alex Kovalev. At the same time, a healthy 35-year-old Jarome Iginla is not as dynamic as a healthy 26-year-old Jarome Iginla who drug the Calgary Flames to a Stanley Cup Final in 2004.

Iginla's star power is pretty immense. He is hockey royalty. He's a sure lock for the Hockey Hall of Fame. He's a player who can improve any roster and can bring numerous intangibles to the conversation. He's just not the same player he was a decade ago.

That's not an insult. That's just reality.

Additionally, with the Penguins Iginla was largely used as a left wing, a position he rarely played in his career, and did not get regular time on the team's power play. To say he was put in a position to succeed fully to his abilities with the Penguins is, to be kind, debatable.

If the Penguins choose to re-sign Iginla (assuming he wants to return), they must utilize him in a role more conducive to his abilities.

8.) The other guys

In addition to Dupuis and Iginla, the Penguins have several other free agents to make decisions on. Some are easier than others. In no particular order:

Matt Cooke is many things. Some are good. Some are bad. Fairly or unfairly, he creates plenty of distractions for his teammates on and off the ice. When Cooke injured Senators defenseman Erik Karlsson's Achilles tendon with a hit on a routine play in February, Cooke became a distraction simply for who he is. Despite the painstaking efforts he has put into reforming his game, Cooke still has a well-earned reputation which doesn't buy him any favors with opponents or referees. Many times, his teammates must deal with it either through retaliation on the ice or through media scrutiny off the ice. Additionally, Cooke is still prone to plays such as his hit from behind on Bruins defenseman Adam McQuaid in Game 1 of the Eastern Conference final which, like or not, he is not going to get the benefit of doubt on.

Cooke is still a strong third-line style of player. But as shis current contract with a $1.8 million salary cap hit, he is believed to be seeking another three-year contract. The Penguins can direct their limited resources elsewhere.

Craig Adams is one of the most respected players in the team's dressing room for his all-out blue collar style on the ice as well as his work with the NHLPA to help find a resolution to the lockout. Additionally, he is one of the team's most durable players having played in every game the past two regular seasons. Coming off a two-year contract with a salary cap hit of $675,000, Adams is worth bringing back at a similar rate.

One of the most criticized players on the roster by fans, Tyler Kennedy enters this offseason as a restricted free agent. In the 2011 offseason, the team signed him to a two-year contract at a cap hit of $2 million. At the time, it was believed Kennedy, coming off a breakout 21-goal season, took a discount to remain with the team. In the two years since, his production was underwhelming as he produced 11 goals in 2011-12 and six in 2012-13.

While offense hardly comes naturally for Kennedy, the Penguins know what they will get from Kennedy. He will provide a hustling but hardly creative effort in every game. If he can be retained for less than $2 million per season, Kennedy is an option worth bringing back. Especially considering the Penguins don't have a ton of forward prospects who are considered NHL-ready beginning next season.

Douglas Murray became something of a folk hero in his brief time with the Penguins and by some accounts, developed a friendship with Sidney Crosby. He offered a physical presence on the Penguins' blue line absent since Hal Gill's last season with the Penguins in 2008-09. But at 6-foot-3, 245 pounds, he's hardly Johann Olav Koss when it comes to skating ability.

Given the depth the organization has below the NHL level on the blue line, Murray is most likely expendable.

It seems like Dustin Jeffrey becoming a restricted free agent is a yearly occurrence. Despite never really being enamoured by Bylsma, the Penguins keep bring him back and he keeps returning. Capable of playing all three forward positions and on all four lines, Jeffrey has never really recovered the scoring touch he briefly showed in 2010-11 prior to a serious knee injury.

Even if he's cheap and versitaile, it might be best for both parties to move on.

Before there was Jarome Iginla, there was Brenden Morrow.

Like Iginla, Morrow was a respected Western Conference captain who made the decision to leave his team after several seasons to chase the Stanley Cup. Like Iginla, he generated mixed results.

Down the stretch, Morrow stepped up in the absence of injured stars Crosby and Malkin and helped the Penguins in games such as a 3-1 road win against the Panthers, April 13, where Morrow had a hand in all three goals.

In other games, Morrow was nearly invisible as a fourth-line presence, particularly in the postseason.

At 34, Morrow has a lot of hard miles on his tires. Rarely finding ways to spare his body abuse on the ice, Morrow, who was never fast during his younger days, looked slow and plodding during much of his brief time with the Penguins.

That said, Morrow bring a high level of respect to the team and still has a nack for finding goals near the blue paint. If things don't work with Dupuis and/or Iginla, Morrow could be a secondary option to re-sign.

As the lockout ended in mid January, Mark Eaton was out of work. By the start of June, he was playing top four minutes on the blue line in the Eastern Conference final.

The fact that Eaton was able to turn an amateur tryout contract with the Wilkes-Barre/Scranton Penguins into a regular gig with the best team in the Eastern Conference during the regular season is a triumph in and of itself. At the same time, the fact that Penguins felt their best option of playing alongside Letang was his former partner from 2009 said a lot about the coaching staff's lack of trust in some of their younger defensemen.

Eaton should be commended for fighting his way back to the NHL and squeezing out whatever hockey he had left in his body but that doesn't mean he should return to the roster next season. The Penguins have better, younger options.

Robert Bortuzzo is one of those younger options. At 6-foot-4, 215 pounds, he's one of the bigger players in the organization. An ideal fit as a bottom-pairing defenseman, he had a brief cup of coffee in the NHL season and showed a mostly steady, dependable but hardly spectacular game. Bortuzzo won't make or break the roster, but he should be retained as a restricted free agent.

9.) Living without Letang

Despite the troubles we outlined above, Letang is a pretty special player. He is a Norris Trophy finalist afterall.

But he's scheduled to become a free agent next summer. A player with his skillset on the blue line could command upwards of $7 million a season. It's hard to imagine a scenario where the Penguins could pay him that much money while also paying Crosby and Malkin top dollar with the salary cap taking a drop this offseason.

Could the Penguins trade him? As Ray Shero showed last summer with Jordan Staal, he's not afraid to part ways with a franchise player when the potential for a high return is possible. A player with Letang's skillset would surely reap a bounty ton of future assets.

Additionally, the Penguins' organizational depth on the blue line would provide plenty of options in finding an internal replacement for Letang. With Despres, Scott Harrington, Olli Maatta, Derrick Pouliot, Brian Dumoulin and others in place, the Penguins have tons of high-end defensive talent in the pipelines.

As was the case with Staal, parting ways with Letang will not make the Penguins a better team in the immediate sense. But it might be a necessary move given the circumstances.

10.) Tough enough

In the end, trying to win the Stanley Cup is tough as heck. There's a reason no one has won it in back to back seasons since the Red Wings managed to pull it off in 1997 and 1998.

The Bruins and Blackhawks will battle for the Stanley Cup beginning this week. Since their two most recent championships - Chicago in 2010 and Boston in 2011 - they have combined for three exits in the first round.

The Red Wings are arguably the best organization in the entire NHL. But they went six years between their most two recent championships in 2002 and 2008. They don't win it every year. In fact, they don't even get past the first round every year. In the three years following their 2002 title, they went out in the first round twice and the second round once.

The Penguins aren't going to either. Especially in the age of the salary cap. Anyone who thinks the Penguins are going to end every season with a team photo at center ice is denying reality. There's a reason there has been seven different Stanley Cup champions since the 2004-05 lockout.

That makes what the Penguins and Red Wings were able to accomplish in 2008 and 2009 with appearances in back-to-back Stanley Cup final all that more amazing. The Bruins or the Blackhawks will be the first team to win multiple Stanley Cup titles in the salary cap era. It's extremely rare.

Does that excuse the Penguins from their shortcomings the past four seasons? No. They have specific issues to address as explained above

Every team has an ultimate goal of winning the Stanley Cup. But the Penguins are part of an exclusive group which can realistically expect it on a year to year basis. How many teams can claim that?

(Photos: Pittsburgh-Post-Gazette archives; Fleury, Malkin, Iginla, Jokinen and Letang-Justin K. Aller/Getty Images;  Coaches-Dale MacMillan/Getty Images; Cooke-Bruce Bennett/Getty Images; Stanley Cup-Harry How/Getty Images)

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