It would be the understatement of the year to say that I never saw this coming. Excluding the meaningless season finale game where the playoff pairings had already been decided before the puck was even dropped, today marked the 5th consecutive "meaningful" game (2 regular season, 3 playoff games) where the Pens scored first against the Flyers only to lose in embarrassing fashion. In 4 of those 5 games, the Penguins started with multi-goal leads. In one of those 4, the Pens led by three goals. What I'm trying to say is - this is a collapse of epic proportions. When you add to the mix the fact that the team on the receiving end of this butt kicking is as "injury free" as they've been in years, a recent two-time Stanley Cup finalist, and the hands down favorite to win the Stanley Cup this year, and I don't think it's a stretch to say that we may be looking at one of the most monumental failures in sports history when one compares expectations against final results.
Everyone will point to a myriad of things on the ice - Malkin is currently playing as if hitting 50 goals for the season was the only objective he had for the year - he looks entirely disinterested on the ice against Philly. Crosby looks as if the word "back-check" is no longer in his vocabulary. Jordon Staal is losing so many races to the puck that I'm convinced his knee injury from earlier this year (courtesy of Mike Rupp) and his foot injury from a few years back (thanks to P.K. Subban for that one) must both be flaring up simultaneously in some sort of unexplainable delayed medical mystery. Mark Recchi won a Stanley Cup last year at age 43 and had more desire than I'm seeing from our 3 top centers combined. It's sad - so, so sad thinking of what could (and should have!!) been.
I don't want to believe this is a coaching problem. Dan Bylsma took an injury depleted roster to 7 games last year in the first round before losing 1-0 in Game 7 against Tampa Bay. That kind of effort was rewarded with the first ever "Coach of the Year" award for the Pens organization. This is the same coach that took the Pens from 10th place in the conference all the way to a Stanley Cup victory upon joining the team in 2009. Bylsma certainly deserves some blame, but I think this problem is a little higher up within the organizational stratosphere.
When the Pens won the cup in 2009, they were an offensive juggernaut as they are today. But they had 2 other elements that they no longer have : a shutdown defense (think Rob Scuderi and Hall Gill) and great character guys (think Billy Guerin / Max Talbot). Back then, if teams tried to intimidate the Penguins in the press like Torterella and Laviolette did in the last few weeks, the Pens would bear down and say "OK, bring it on." A couple years ago, coach's comments like that would have rallied the team together - remember Kevin Stevens in 1992 guaranteeing a Pittsburgh series victory after an 0-2 series start against the Boston Bruins? Remember Max Talbot "sssshhing" the Philly crowd in 2009 despite being down 0-3 in the game? This Penguins team has no swagger at all. There is no better example than when our team captain admits "yeah, Philly gets in our head and we don't play our best against them". Can you even imagine Max Talbot or Billy Guerin saying something like that when they played in the Burgh?? Think of other well respected captains through the years (Joe Sakic, Steve Yzerman, Nick Lidstrom) - would they ever say something like that?? It's said to see this proud franchise get pushed around. The more opposing coaches speak up, the more opposing players push us around, the more the Penguins wilt - it's so, so sad.
How did this happen? Craig Patrick was a great GM back in the early 90's, making savvy trades that brought the likes of Ron Francis, Ulf Samuellson, and Rick Tocchet to Pittsburgh. However, at some point - Patrick lost his Midas touch. He traded Markus Naslund away and got nothing in return. Nobody blames him for trading Jaromir Jagr - Jagr had become a malcontent who wanted out. However, we got nothing in return for number 68. Eventually, it was obvious that Mr. Patrick had lost his touch and he was shown the door. Enter Ray Shero.
Ray Shero's shrewdness brought us Hall Gill to help the team earn Stanley Cup finals berths in 08 and 09. The Billy Guerin trade was a stroke of genius. I had never heard of James Neal before he came here, but Ray Shero knew what he was doing with that trade as well. However, some of his mistakes are really starting to show. The Salary cap makes things tough, I realize that. However, without knowing the exact numbers, I'm fairly confident that Gill and Scuderi both earn less than either Paul Martin or Zybenek Michalek. Which defensive pairing would you rather have? Shero traded a draft choice to obtain negotiating rights to Dan Hamhuis. Shero was confident that their prior relationship in Nashville would sway Hamhuis to choose Pittsburgh over his home town of Vancouver. When Shero was proven wrong, he made a very bad knee-jerk reaction and overpaid for both Martin and Michalek. Shero loved Steve Sullivan so much from his Nashville days that he chose Sullivan over Talbot. Nothing against Sullivan - I love his hustle. But let's face it, if forced to choose, who would you rather have - Sullivan or Talbot?
Ray Shero needs to be held accountable for this debacle. Given the Penguins talent and the limitations posed by the Salary Cap, his job is not an easy one. He was smart not to overpay for Gonchar with Kris Letang progressing the way he was. He's made other great moves as noted above. However, I firmly believe that a Gill, Scuderi, Talbot combination would be less expensive and substantially more effective than our current mix of Martin, Michalek, and Sullivan. Sullivan's contract is one year. Martin and Michalek however, may be albatrosses that the Penguins will not soon recover from. Oh, what could have been...