Is Dan Bylsma on the hot seat?
After getting swept by the Bruins, there are many decisions to make
Because, let's be honest, in the wake of a four-game sweep at the hands of the Boston Bruins in the Eastern Conference finals in which the Pens somehow managed to score just two goals, never hold a lead, go 0-for-15 on the power play and get embarrassed 6-1 at home in Game 2, the easy thing to do would be to make a coaching change.
But would it be the right thing to do?
Well, that's where it gets a lot more complicated for Shero, who does not lack guts but is likewise a thoughtful, patient man. We're guessing both qualities will be brought to bear in making this decision after Friday's painful 1-0 loss in Boston that unceremoniously dumped the Eastern Conference's top seed to the sideline.
First, let's start with the measure of success.
There were 26 other NHL teams that would have been pleased to have had a berth in a conference final. When the Chicago Blackhawks and Los Angeles Kings close out their Western Conference finals, only two teams will have had more success than the Penguins this spring.
Everyone knows the expectations were much higher for this team from within the organization, from fans and hockey observers pretty much everywhere. Not everyone expected the Penguins to beat Boston, but it's fair to say no one expected they would lay such a giant egg at such a critical juncture in the season.
From Bylsma on down through the lineup, that was the message after Friday's game; that this was an opportunity lost.
This brings us to the next point.
Does the manner in which the Penguins lost have a bearing on how Shero will rule on his coaching situation?
That, too, is tricky.
Did Bylsma get outcoached by Claude Julien who, like Bylsma, is a former coach of the year, but a man who somehow has been underappreciated as a bench boss -- in Boston and beyond?
Julien got top production, especially early in the series, from his top guys. Playoff points leader David Krejci had four goals, and that's two more than the entire Penguins team registered.
Bylsma made lineup changes in the hopes of sparking some life into his moribund offense. He juggled lines, moving the strangely impotent Jarome Iginla down the lineup. He tried Joe Vitale and Tyler Kennedy and Beau Bennett.
Could he have done more? Should he have benched Iginla? Should he have installed him on Sidney Crosby's right side?
The Pens ended up with two goals. Take away the 6-1 loss in Game 2 and the Penguins allowed just six goals in the other three losses. Part of that is Bylsma's decision to stick with Tomas Vokoun after pulling him in the first period of Game 2. But the team didn't lose this series because it couldn't play defense.
So is it Bylsma's fault that the assembled talent of Crosby and Evgeni Malkin, both former scoring champs and league MVPs, and Norris Trophy nominee Kris Letang and sniper James Neal combined for exactly zero points in the series?
Is it the coach's fault that Letang turned into a turnover machine in the conference finals?
Or that his skilled players hit post after post or whiffed on wide-open shots game after game?
Is it Bylsma's fault that Malkin had only one shot on goal in Game 4 and missed a wide-open net when a last-second shot hit Zdeno Chara 's outstretched arm?
The fact the power play went 0-for-15 is problematic because it's generally accepted that special teams are about schemes and putting the right people in the positions to succeed. In short, that's where coaching acumen is brought to bear. Still, for the most part, there were quality chances but little in the way of quality finishing, unlike earlier in the playoffs, when the power play scored at will and entered the conference final as the most potent unit in the postseason.
No doubt Shero will listen closely to what his players are saying on their exit interviews.
Is this a team whose failures -- and make no mistake, this on many levels was an epic failure even if the Bruins were the catalyst to that failure with their poise and discipline -- stem from a team turning a deaf ear to the man behind the bench?
Bylsma couldn't be further removed from the caustic sometimes sarcastic demeanor of John Tortorella, who was fired shortly after the New York Rangers were beaten by Boston in the second round of the playoffs. But it was clear that whatever Rangers GM Glen Sather heard from his players as they parted ways for the summer was alarming enough that Sather made the unexpected move to remove his coach even though Tortorella was just one season removed from a trip to the Eastern Conference finals.
If Shero gets a sense from his players that they believe they are better off with someone else coaching them -- if in effect they abdicate responsibility for their two-goal performance -- it will be hard for Shero to keep Bylsma.
Our hunch is that's not the message Shero is going to hear, though.
There is a significant amount of pressure on Shero to fix what happened, just as there is always significant pressure on him to keep adding pieces in the hopes of creating another Stanley Cup-winning mix.
But among the questions Shero must consider is this one: If not Bylsma, then who?
Hard to imagine Lindy Ruff here, or Tortorella.
We're big fans of Alain Vigneault, yet he was fired for essentially walking a parallel track, failing to get a talented Vancouver Canucks team over the hump. Except Vigneault could get his team only to a Cup finals series, which they then blew, against Boston two years ago and Bylsma was the man behind the bench in 2009 when the Penguins ended a Cup drought that dated back to 1992.
In the past two seasons, Vigneault's Canucks went 1-8 in two first-round losses.
So, how does he represent a better option in Pittsburgh as opposed to simply a different option?
We had a conversation with an NHL coach this spring, and we talked about the disconnect that sometimes exists when determining whether a coach has been successful.
We talked about how it was generally perceived that Julien likely would have been fired had his team lost in the first round in the 2011 playoffs to Montreal, especially after losing the first two games at home. The Bruins rebounded and won their first Cup since 1972.
Still, when Boston blew a 3-1 series lead to Toronto and looked for certain as if it would lose Game 7 -- trailing 4-1 with about half the third period to play -- again the feeling was that Julien's job might be in jeopardy this spring.
They came back and now return to the finals for the second time in three years, surely cementing Julien's position for at least a few weeks.
We also talked with the coach about what might happen if the Penguins had lost to the New York Islanders in the first round. It would have marked the second time in four years they would have been beaten by the No. 8 seed (Montreal did it to the Pens in 2010) and the consensus was Bylsma could not afford a loss to the Isles.
After a wobbly few games that included Bylsma's gutsy decision to switch goaltenders, going from perpetual starter Marc-Andre Fleury to Vokoun, the Pens won in six, then dispatched Ottawa in five games.
We talk about the fine line between winning and losing in the playoffs, but the line between the employed and the unemployed is likewise razor thin.
In the coming days, Shero is going to have to decide on which side of that line Bylsma is going to stand.
It says here that, although it might not be the most popular decision or the easiest, Bylsma has earned the opportunity to stand once again on the side of the employed as coach of the Pittsburgh Penguins.
We'll find out soon enough whether Shero shares those sentiments.
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