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Sunday, February 15, 2009
Firing Therrien was easy out for Pens

By Scott Burnside
ESPN.com

So much for loyalty.

Michel Therrien
Michel Therrien was fired by the Penguins after leading the team to the Stanley Cup finals last season.

So much for the plan.

So much for not taking the easy way out.

Just 57 games after Michel Therrien was feted for coaching the Pittsburgh Penguins to their first Stanley Cup finals since 1992, he was tossed under the coaching bus by the underachieving Penguins on Sunday. He became the third coach that either reached the Cup finals or won it all to be fired since the end of last season (Tampa Bay fired John Tortorella and Carolina dismissed Peter Laviolette).

Whatever the Penguins had failed to do this season -- and that list is long and mostly bleak -- Therrien deserved better than this.

Still, this was an easy call to make.

The Penguins were coming off what might have been their worst loss in a season marred by plenty of off nights. Against a Toronto team playing out the string and waiting for GM Brian Burke to start steamrolling the lineup, the desperate Penguins jumped out to a 2-0 lead and then folded like the old suit on your loony Uncle Jack, losing in embarrassing fashion by a 6-2 count.

The Penguins woke up in 10th place in the Eastern Conference on Sunday, five points out of the final playoff spot. They have the 24th-ranked power play -- and that with two of the top three scorers in the NHL in Evgeni Malkin and Sidney Crosby.

They have the 20th-ranked penalty-killing unit and are 21st in the NHL in goals against per game after being one of the top teams in the East defensively last season.

So Therrien was an easy mark.

He didn't have enough chips in the bank. He wasn't GM Ray Shero's guy, having preceded Shero in Pittsburgh by half a season.

He was gruff and combustible and sometimes hard on people around him.

And you know what? He may have also saved this franchise.

Oh yeah, winning the Crosby lottery helped, but don't underestimate for a minute the importance of the man behind the bench.

This is a man who took a Penguins organization that was adrift, aimless, shiftless -- and those were the team's good qualities -- when he arrived in December 2005. And he kicked butt.

Remember when kicking butt was a good thing in Pittsburgh?

Remember how he kicked the Penguins' butts from laughingstocks in 2005-06 to 105 points in 2006-07 and then kicked their butts right to the Stanley Cup finals last season?

So, you ask yourself, did Therrien suddenly become a dunderhead in the time between Game 6 of the Stanley Cup finals and the start of this season?

No. But he became an easy scapegoat.

People have been looking to point the finger of blame all season in Pittsburgh, and often that finger has wavered between Therrien and Shero.

We have and continue to defend Shero for thinking big picture and not being sucked into the myopic game that many GMs, and many organizations, play in blowing their brains out for what they think may be their lone shot at a Stanley Cup.

Shero has locked up a terrific core of top-level players, including Crosby, Malkin, netminder Marc-Andre Fleury, Ryan Whitney and Jordan Staal. This is a team that should contend for years. Not every year, maybe, but long-term.

That kind of thinking is why Shero and fans have had to put up with Miroslav Satan and Ruslan Fedotenko, who are filling in for Marian Hossa and Ryan Malone this season. Shero went after Hossa, but was rebuffed by the forward, who signed with Detroit; Shero couldn't/shouldn't have matched Malone's monstrous deal in Tampa. So the Penguins GM had to go to Plan B with Satan and Fedotenko, who have 25 goals between them, but Shero didn't cripple his team's future for the sake of this season.

But if the plan is really about the big picture, then didn't Therrien deserve better than to be cast under the bus 57 games into a season in which he tried to integrate the soulless Satan into a soulful position and tried to coach over injuries to Whitney, Fedotenko and Sergei Gonchar? Good grief, Gonchar just came back to the lineup for his first regular-season game in the debacle against Toronto. And that's it?

Here's the common refrain out of Pittsburgh. The players didn't like Therrien. OK. Bet they didn't mind him too much when they rolled through the Eastern Conference playoffs with a 12-3 record and went to their first Stanley Cup finals since owner Mario Lemieux was playing.

Here is another common refrain: It was Lemieux who demanded Shero go out and get Hossa at the trade deadline. There is another one: It was Lemieux who demanded Shero make this move at head coach.

We don't believe it to be true. Consultation? Sure. But we believe this was Shero's move. Shero first insisted no players came to him to complain about Therrien. And sources have told ESPN.com the team's captain, Crosby, didn't have a problem with Therrien. Shero said he thinks one of the messages this move sends to the team is one of accountability.

"I think we're all accountable," Shero said. "I'm accountable. This is my team."

Shero said he just believed the timing was right, that the team was headed in the wrong direction and he had to make a move for the sake of the team.

This is Shero's most important decision since taking on the GM post in May 2006; more important than signing Crosby and Malkin and Fleury and Staal to long-term deals.

This is the kind of decision that may define this team's identity going forward.

The fact that Shero turned the reins of this talented, underachieving team over to the team's AHL coach from Wilkes-Barre/Scranton, a journeyman forward who managed 19 goals in 429 NHL games, suggests one of two things: a heartfelt belief Therrien really wasn't the guy despite his successes, or Shero needed to do something, anything, to jolt this team into the playoffs, and this was the simplest plan of action.

"I think he's one of the up-and-coming young coaches," Shero said of Dan Bylsma.

During Sunday's conference call, the Penguins' new bench boss was a decided afterthought. Even when the team's public relations staff demanded questions be directed to Bylsma, he joked one of the first orders of business would be to get players to pronounce his name correctly.

We don't suggest for a minute any of this is easy.

Despite the injuries and the change in personnel, there is no way the Penguins should be where they are. And the prospect of missing the playoffs a year after going to the Stanley Cup finals must be galling for everyone connected to the organization.

Maybe bringing in Bylsma will help this team turn the corner.

Maybe they'll love him and lose 15 more games down the stretch.

Maybe they'll hate him and go to the Stanley Cup finals like they did with Therrien.

The bottom line is, these players didn't deserve to be let off the hook so easily and Therrien deserved more than to be cast aside like yesterday's trash.

Scott Burnside covers the NHL for ESPN.com.