by Mike Chen on 02/16/09 at 04:40 PM ET
It ain’t easy being Pittsburgh GM Ray Shero. One minute you’re being hailed as a genius for getting the youthful Pittsburgh Penguins within two wins of the Stanley Cup. The next minute, you’re firing coaches and looking at your awfully thin roster.
Of course, you could say that about any GM in pro sports – it’s pretty much a what-have-you-done-for-me-lately business. And while the recent firing of Michel Therrien may not have exactly been warranted, it was the time-tested adage in sports: you can’t trade the entire roster, so you fire the coach.
Was Therrien the right coach for the Penguins? Like just about any coach, Therrien wasn’t perfect. He brought a mix of good and bad to the table, and his heavy-handed style came with an expiration date. However, to cite Therrien as the primary catalyst in the Penguins’ Stanley Cup Final hangover is simply inaccurate. Shero made his share of mistakes, but there were things out of his control:
-Marian Hossa: Would things have been different had Marian Hossa selected Pittsburgh over Detroit? One has to think that Hossa’s point-per-game rate would have prevented the constant need to play Evgeni Malkin and Sidney Crosby on the same line. Maybe Hossa didn’t like the way the water tasted in Pittsburgh or maybe he couldn’t get over the fact that a Jean-Claude Van Damme movie (the classic action flick Sudden Death) was once made in Mellon Arena. Whatever the case, three superstars would have certainly been better than two.
-Sergei Gonchar/Ryan Whitney: Injuries happen. It’s part of the game, and you have to adapt. Both Whitney and Gonchar are too critical to the Penguin power play to disappear without some on-ice trickle-down. The Penguins power play is an ugly 16.1%; had Gonchar and Whitney been around for a full campaign, it’s easy to see that the Penguins would have clicked at a much better rate. Considering how tight just about every NHL game is, those extra power play goals could have made a great difference.
-Jordan Staal: Some players take longer to develop than others. In his third season, Staal continues to bounce between flashes of greatness and disappearing acts. For most young players, this might be more acceptable. However, Staal’s high draft status (2nd overall) and pedigree (brother Eric has had at least 70 points in every year following his rookie season) explain why many Penguin fans are frustrated with Staal’s development. After a sophomore slump, many expected Staal to finally breakout with some consistency. As it stands, Staal is projected to have about 45 points – just about what he had during his rookie year.
-Ryan Malone: Money talks, and Malone’s absurd Tampa Bay offer was something that Shero (or any sane GM) couldn’t afford. While the Lightning overpaid Malone, his combination grit, skill, and leadership would be missed on any team. Malone’s in-your-face style brought its share of ugly goals to the Penguins lineup – something sorely missed on the Penguin power play. After all, someone’s gotta screen the goalie.
Should Miroslav Satan and Ruslan Fedotenko shoulder some of the blame? They’re easy scapegoats, but if you look at their post-lockout stats, it’s obvious that they were more of a gamble than anything else. In a best-case scenario, Satan would rediscover his scoring touch from a decade ago and Fedotenko would replace Malone’s qualities and stats. In a worst-case scenario, well, their numbers mirror what they did with the New York Islanders. It’s easy to say that Shero should have signed this player or that player instead, but ultimately that becomes a game of fruitless speculation. At the time, Satan and Fedotenko looked like reasonable alternatives.
In the end, there are many reasons why the Penguins fell apart. Had Gonchar and Whitney been healthy and Staal been more effective, perhaps Pittsburgh would be safely in fourth place rather than battling for eighth. Had Marian Hossa decided he wanted to stay after all, perhaps the Penguin power play wouldn’t have struggled as much. Hindsight is 20/20, and unless Ray Shero manages to take the time machine from that other Van Damme movie (Timecop; come on, you all remember that one, right?) and somehow fix those problems, you’re left with little wiggling room in today’s NHL.
Fire the coach? Sometimes it’s the only thing to do.
When San Jose Sharks GM Doug Wilson fired Ron Wilson after a highly successful regular season and a disappointing playoff run, he stated that sometimes the teacher needs a new classroom and the classroom needs a new teacher. Will this be the turning point that restores the Penguins’ fortunes? Perhaps not, but considering his lack of options, it’s the only real choice Ray Shero had left to try and spark his club.
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