The Pittsburgh Penguins were eliminated from the Stanley Cup playoffs on Tuesday night after falling to the New York Rangers in Game Seven, 2-1. While the loss in that game came almost entirely because of the stellar performance of New York goaltender, Henrik Lundqvist, the series should have never gone the distance. Pittsburgh was up 3-1 in the series after four games, but simply could not find the finish needed to put the series away. With this year’s playoff exit, the Penguins have fallen well short of hockey’s ultimate prize for five straight years, bringing up the question of where does the franchise go from here?
First and foremost, the coaching needs to be addressed in the offseason. Pittsburgh head coach Dan Bylsma is on the hot seat and the seat has never been hotter. For fans around the league, his decision-making has been in question since the United States underwhelming performance in the Sochi Olympics. For Pittsburgh fans, it has been under fire for much longer. Bylsma’s ability to find a line combination that works, only to promptly ignore it, has frustrated fans of the team for years. While Pittsburgh’s depth issues do not fall solely on Bylsma, his decisions to saddle Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin with grinders in an attempt to spread out the non-existent scoring in their lineup ultimately doomed the Penguins. In Game 7, Crosby started the game with Brian Gibbons on his wing and finished the game with Marcel Goc. Neither player is noted for their goal-scoring ability.
The writing is on the wall for Bylsma. Pittsburgh has now blown a 3-1 series lead twice during his tenure, a feat that should get any coach fired, let alone a coach with the two most talented players in the world on his roster. Rumors of dissent in the lockerroom between Crosby and Bylsma have many analysts calling the decision to let the coach go “a done deal.” Crosby’s frustration bled through into the games as well, having very public shouting matches with the coach during the series. While the Penguins have not announced anything officially, it is hard to believe Bylsma will find himself behind Pittsburgh’s bench at the start of next season.
Another issue that Pittsburgh needs to address is the depth issue. Every team remaining in the Stanley Cup playoffs has talent up and down the lineup. The Rangers beat Pittsburgh in large part because the Penguins did not have an answer to New York’s fourth line. The line contributed on the scoresheet, but it was the play that did not show up in the stats that really made the line shine. It seemed that every time that line hit the ice, they would spend long shifts in the offensive zone, just wearing out the Pittsburgh defenders. Over the course of a seven-game series, that kind of grind on the body adds up. Likewise, Patrick Kane and Jonathan Toews have had great success in this postseason because the depth that won the Blackhawks the Cup in 2010 has returned.
This issue will fall on Pittsburgh general manager Ray Shero to correct, and it will not be an easy one to do so. The Penguins have a lot of money tied up in a few star players, so Pittsburgh will likely have to move one of them to have the depth needed to return to the Stanley Cup Finals. The two most obvious choices are goaltender Marc-Andre Fleury and defenseman Kris Letang. Fleury makes $5 million for the next year before becoming an unrestricted free agent, while Letang’s recently signed contract extension will pay him $7.25 million until 2022. Trading Fleury might solve the Penguin’s depth issue temporarily, but this postseason was one of the few instances where goaltending was not an issue in Pittsburgh. Trading Letang makes the most sense, as it clears up a lot of cap space for a long time. However, with the defenseman’s recent injury troubles and the length and amount of his contract, finding a taker for Letang will require some effort on Shero’s part.
In the end, it is difficult to tell where the Pittsburgh Penguins will go from here. After winning the Stanley Cup in 2009, it looked as if Pittsburgh was going to become the next great dynasty in hockey. They had two of the best hockey players in the world, scoring at a ridiculous pace in the playoffs, and they were young enough to still have room to grow. However, since then, it has been one disappointing playoff exit after another. While some years may be more excusable than others, ultimately, the end result is all that matter. After last night’s 2-1 loss to the New York Rangers, that end result is falling well short for the Penguins.
This article is one in a series, providing coverage, analysis, and predictions to NHL fans.
Commentary by Jonathan Gardner