Only a few seasons ago, the Pittsburgh Penguins were considered a model franchise. The organization made it to back-to-back Stanley Cup Finals, winning once, their young coach won the Jack Adams for Coach of the Year, and they had two of the best players in the game locked into long-term contracts. Their future seemed bright, and it was almost assured that they would be Cup-contenders for many, many years. As it turns out, the hockey world was collectively counting Pittsburgh chickens before they hatched. Recent hires by the Carolina Hurricanes and the Vancouver Canucks have halted the Pittsburgh Penguins’ search for a new coach, seemingly back to square one.
After another humiliating early round exit in the Stanley Cup playoffs, their fourth in five years, the team fired their general manager and their head coach. While such a huge overall seems almost foolish for a team that consistently makes the playoffs, the moves were simply the end result of many noticeable chinks in the once-impenetrable Pittsburgh armor.
Former general manager, Ray Shero, was unable to cope with the changing landscape of the NHL. While Pittsburgh did win the Cup in 2009 on the backs of Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin, every Cup winner since then has won because of one thing: depth in the roster. Whether it was Chicago, Boston, or Los Angeles, the ability to play the game four lines deep was evident in every Cup run. Pittsburgh became far too top-heavy due to the contracts Shero handed out, leaving very little money to fill in the depth roles. For that, he was released by the Penguins and replaced by former Hurricanes GM Jim Rutherford.
Head coach, “Disco” Dan Bylsma, became the first victim of Rutherford’s new position, though the decision was made well before Rutherford took the reigns. Bylsma’s seeming inability to adjust his strategy in-game is what ultimately cost him his job. This past postseason, the Penguins were up in their series against the New York Rangers, 3-1. New York head coach, Alain Vigneault, switched up his defensive pairings and adjusted his strategy to focus more on Malkin’s line, which had dominated his team to that point. Pittsburgh offense suddenly ran dry, scoring only four goals in the final four games, and Bylsma seemed unable or unwilling to find a solution. The blown series lead spelled the end of his tenure as Pittsburgh’s head coach.
At the announcement of Bylsma’s firing, Pittsburgh fans were hopeful about the future again. A new coach could bring the dynasty that seemed inevitable only a few seasons ago back into the picture. The good news was there were many good coaches available. Candidates that the Penguins were reportedly interested in included Bill Peters, who had been the assistant coach under the great Mike Babcock for the Detroit Red Wings, Willie Desjardins, who led his American Hockey League team to the Calder Cup, and John Stevens, an assistant coach of the Stanley Cup winning Los Angeles Kings. Three great candidates, but none wanted anything to do with the Pittsburgh organization.
John Stevens was the first candidate eliminated from contention, after the Kings announced he would be staying within the organization. Bill Peters reportedly narrowed his decision down to either Pittsburgh or Carolina, and ultimately went with Carolina because he wanted to build his own program, not inherit one. Desjardins was in the final interview stages with Pittsburgh on Thursday, but it was reported Friday morning that he would be taking the vacant head coaching job in Vancouver instead. Three candidates targeted, and none hired, leaving Rutherford and the Pittsburgh organization scrambling for answers.
“The guy I had is going in a different direction,” Rutherford said Friday, adding he would take the weekend to “sort some things out.”
So why are so many coaches wary of joining the Penguins? It could be because they know it would only be a temporary gig. When Rutherford was hired, he was only given a two-year contract, at the end of which, it is assumed that Pittsburgh’s assistant general manager Jason Botterill will take the reins. A new general manager often means a new coaching staff as well, and it has long been rumored that Pittsburgh is targeting Detroit’s head coach, Mike Babcock, when his contract runs out two years from now. Making plans for the future is what caused the Penguins to run into trouble in the first place, and it appears it is hurting their chances at finding a new coach as well.
The biggest issue with whatever coach Pittsburgh eventually hires is that he is possibly the team’s fourth choice. By making it public that “his guy” decided to take a different head coaching job, Rutherford has not only hurt the organization’s chances of finding an acceptable head coach, but he has also made it difficult for the players to respect whatever coach is eventually hired. The recent hires have caused the Pittsburgh Penguins to begin their coaching search anew, but it is the strict term limit and the public comments about coaches past and present that seem to be hurting Pittsburgh’s chances the most.
Commentary by Jonathan Gardner