A summer of discontent
The Penguins will likely be a team in transition
PITTSBURGH -- Instead of preparing for Game 5 of the Eastern Conference final Sunday night in Pittsburgh, the Boston Bruins were making hotel and travel plans for a trip to Chicago and the start of the Stanley Cup finals against the Chicago Blackhawks.
In Pittsburgh, the Penguins were in the Consol Energy Center, but instead of taping sticks and preparing for another game against the Bruins, they were packing up gear and saying their goodbyes after being shockingly swept aside by the Bruins in four games.
In front of each locker were bundles of sticks -- some new, some used -- which had been taped together by the training staff. Hockey bags were packed and ready to be taken to offseason homes across the continent and beyond. A copy of the Penguins' offseason training guide was set on top of each bag.
The nameplates had been taken down from in front of the stalls awaiting next training camp.
"It's like every year. We do it every year. But at a different time. And obviously it's not the right time," defenseman Kris Letang said of the scene in the locker room.
"But it's always a sad moment for all the guys especially that you might not see all the same faces coming into the next season. It's not a great vision," he said.
All locker cleanout days mark the end of a chapter of sorts. Hockey clubs are by their very nature always fluid, and that goes for the good and the bad.
Change is inevitable and if you're lucky, change is good and marks maturation and development.
The Penguins had risen from the ashes of years of decay and bad management and organizational dysfunction to become one of the great success stories coming out of the last lockout. Their star captain, Sidney Crosby, was the poster boy for the NHL's renaissance after a ludicrous lost season in 2004-05.
Crosby did not disappoint and was joined by the likes of Evgeni Malkin, Jordan Staal, Letang, Marc-Andre Fleury and a supporting cast that would go to a final in 2008 and then win a Cup the following spring.
The word "dynasty" rolled off peoples' lips. And who could blame them?
Except is hasn't exactly turned out that way.
Crosby's injuries, and injuries at critical times to other key personnel saw. the Penguins win just one playoff round in the three years after the Cup win.
But buoyed by the addition of veteran leaders like Brenden Morrow, Douglas Murray and Jarome Iginla, the sky seemed the limit this spring for a Penguin team that had finished first in the Eastern Conference during the lockout shortened season.
Instead they ran into a brick wall of a team in the Bruins and they folded in shocking fashion in the conference final losing in four games, scoring just twice, being shut out on the power play and never owning a lead.
"It's almost embarrassing being out and about. Expectations that we've had on ourselves and then to not be there it's tough, it's not an easy time of the year," Morrow said.
"Some guys you may never see again, so this week is bittersweet," he said.
That there will be change to this organization is inevitable. How great those changes will be will mark an important off-season storyline that could have ripple effects across the NHL.
It's unknown, for instance, whether head coach Dan Bylsma will return. GM Ray Shero did not speak to the media on Sunday and Bylsma said he has not spoken to Shero about his future.
Bylsma answered questions about his team as though he will continue to coach, but if Shero decides to make a change, our guess is that Bylsma will be unemployed a very short period of time since there are openings in Vancouver and New York with the Rangers. Both those opportunities would seem to be a good fit for Bylsma.
But, what about the other pieces?
If you talk to the players in the Penguin room Sunday every single one would come back if he had his way. But that's not realistic.
Fleury, for instance, said he would like to stay in Pittsburgh and Bylsma insisted that Fleury is the team's number one goalie and that he expected Fleury would be again come playoff time. But the evidence suggests that the coaching staff has lost confidence in Fleury's ablility to replicate the clutch goaltending he showed in winning 30 playoff games between 2008 and 2009.
"It was disappointing to not play you know. But it's understandable. Voky was playing great," Fleury said Sunday.
Asked if he thought the coaching staff had lost confidence in him, Fleury paused.
"I don't know, I haven't really talked with Dan yet," Fleury said.
"I don't know, you should ask them, not me," Fleury added.
Fleury has two years left on his current deal with a $5 million cap hit and a limited no-trade clause. Would he welcome a chance at a fresh start if it came to that?
"That's not going to be my choice. I'm here. I want to stay. I don't know, yeah, keep it like that," he said.
Hard to imagine he might not be better off somewhere else given the turmoil of this offseason. And there should be a market for a young goalie that has averaged more than 34 wins a season the past five seasons, including this past season that was shortened to 48 games due to the lockout.
Fleury is not the only longtime member of this team whose future is less than certain in Pittsburgh. Letang is a Norris Trophy nominee this year but hardly played like an elite defensemen for much of the Eastern Conference final. His defensive miscues were many and often led directly to golden scoring chances for the Bruins.
"I think the two first games (of the Boston series) were not my best games. After that I tried a lot harder," he said.
Letang, who said he would like to take on a bigger leadership role with the Pens, will enter the final year of his contract next season and would like to stay with the Penguins. But if he's looking to strike gold, with both term and dollars, it's hard to imagine how he can stay with the Penguins, especially given the other core players who are in the same boat, including Brooks Orpik, Chris Kunitz, Matt Niskanen and Malkin, who will be unrestricted free agents in a year's time.
"I'm enjoying every moment I'm in this organization. I want to be here. For me, what I'm hearing from all the other players, it's the best organization in the league," Letang said.
Last June, Shero, sensing he was not going to be able to keep Staal long-term, dealt him at the draft to Carolina as Staal was heading into his contract year. Look for a similar strategy to be employed with Letang, who has no no-trade protection and should command top assets in return from a team looking for a smooth-skating, offensively gifted defenseman.
Matt Cooke and Pascal Dupuis are both unrestricted free agents. Both have played important roles here. It was Dupuis who seemed to take Friday's loss as hard as anyone. But he may have priced himself out of a place in Pittsburgh with his strong five-on-five and penalty killing play.
It's something he has heard and does not understand, nor like.
"I've played myself out of this place; I've heard that before. How do you do that? Like if you play well, if you play to a certain level why would they let you go? I don't like that. Play myself out of this?" he told ESPN.com.
"It just doesn't make sense to me to hear that," he said.
"Everybody knows I want to be back here. It's a good situation for me personally. Got a chance to play with the best player in the game every night. As far as this city, the fans, my wife and kids want to be here," Dupuis said.
Cooke, likewise, may be too expensive for the Pens to keep given other salary cap demands, and might be forced to consider below-market contract values in order to stay.
There is much discussion that perhaps Shero will look to move Malkin, who can become an unrestricted free agent in a year as well, but that makes little sense. The Penguins are not awash in bright young offensive talent ready to assume pivotal roles. And having traded Staal at least year's draft, our guess is that Shero locking Malkin up long-term will be a priority.
And finally, what of the veterans brought in at the trade deadline ostensibly to help this team make that final push to a Cup?
Given the young defensive talent in the Pens' system, it's hard to imagine Douglas Murray will be back.
Brenden Morrow would like to come back, but is realistic about his chances as he heads towards free agency this summer.
Would he like another shot here?
"I think for a guy that hadn't been to the playoffs for four or five years, and to get back there and knowing the players they have coming back next year, probably going to have the same opportunity they had this year. They're going to be a heck of a team for a long time," Morrow said.
Another former captain, Jarome Iginla, represents another interesting option for the Penguins. The long-time Calgary Flame was candid about his difficulties this playoff year and specifically in the conference final, where he did not have a point.
"I plan on being better next year," said Iginla. "Unfortunately I wasn't as good as I believe I can be, and I think and believe I will be."
At 35 he is coming to the end of a contract that paid him $7 million annually.
He will have to take a lot less money to continue his pursuit of a Stanley Cup ring, especially if that pursuit is to continue in Pittsburgh.
"I think that I will have a better year and, you know, maybe it'll be here with Pitt," he said.
"I've never been really in this situation, as far as the uncertainty of what the future is going to hold, but I'm excited about it and if maybe there's an opportunity here to come back, I'd be definitely be open to that. There's only positives," he said.