Pittsburgh Penguins Hall of Fame center Mario Lemieux attends the dedication of a statue depicting him outside the NHL hockey team's arena on Wednesday, March 7, 2012 in Pittsburgh. (AP Photo/Keith Srakocic)
By Joe Starkey
Published: Wednesday, June 12, 2013, 9:27 p.m.Updated 8 hours ago
Ray Shero was on top of his game Wednesday at Consol Energy Center: well-spoken, honest, enlightening. But he could have used a centerman.
The owner. Mario Lemieux.
While I respect Mario's low-key style, he, too, should have been there to answer for contract extensions for all the coaches (each got two years, or one for every goal the Penguins scored against Boston). After all, the puck stops with Lemieux when it comes to decisions as weighty as retaining and extending an embattled coach who has presided over four consecutive postseason wrecks.
Once viewed as the next coming of the 1980s Edmonton Oilers, the Penguins of late are looking more like the 1970s Houston Oilers — a team that cannot finish. Yes, they advanced to the Eastern Conference final. But they might as well not have. They never even held a lead.
It takes 16 wins to capture the Cup. The Penguins finished with eight. That's four straight years, with a loaded roster in three of them, in which this team failed to cross the halfway point. You'd think that would be unacceptable, but unacceptable is a word we never heard from Shero or coach Dan Bylsma on Wednesday. “Disappointing” was the word of choice.
Like it was all a matter of bad luck.
Look, I appreciate Shero's conviction for his coaches. He made it clear that these are his guys and that he was willing to go to the mat for them, though it turned out he didn't have to because Lemieux and co-owner Ron Burkle apparently were of the same mind.
“They were 100 were supportive,” Shero said. “They made it clear they wanted to move ahead with Dan Bylsma.”
Lemieux and Burkle needed to step in here, much as they did when the Penguins acquired Marian Hossa six years ago, and make the difficult call to change coaches. Or at least to not support the status quo.
Instead, they essentially told the world — via Shero — that they are accepting of the hideous playoff implosions that have marked the past four springs.
The Montreal meltdown.
The Tampa Bay tank job.
The Philly flop.
The Boston Tee Party (See local country club).
This move evokes the Steelers' coach-centric model of management. Which might not be a bad thing. It's a vote for stability. And who knows? The Steelers were proven correct when they twice extended Bill Cowher after disappointing seasons. The Penguins might be vindicated, too. It's just so hard to envision a largely unchanged cast changing the script next spring.
I mean, really, Marc-Andre Fleury's coming back, as Shero stated in the strongest possible words? The Bylsma-Fleury marriage works? Management's confidence in a shattered goaltender has not waned?
Nope. Nothing to see here.
Contrary to what the Penguins might believe, nobody — not even the most delusional fan — expects them to win the Cup every year. Reasonable people don't even expect them to consistently reach the Final. As Shero said, that isn't realistic in this day and age.
But you have to get further than halfway. You can't keep losing to lesser teams. You can't keep getting embarrassed.
Keep in mind, there was zero risk in staying with the status quo. The Penguins have become a wildly popular brand. One priority, as Shero put it, is to play entertaining hockey, and nobody is more entertaining than the Penguins from October to April. They attract ridiculous TV ratings. They have a long waiting list for season tickets. None of that will change.
On the stability front, Shero cited the Detroit Red Wings as a model franchise. He pointed out that the Red Wings have stuck with coach Mike Babcock through hard times. True enough, but when was the last time Detroit was totally humiliated in a playoff series?
It's not just that you lose. It's how you lose. And the Penguins have developed a nasty little habit of coming apart at the seams.
At times Wednesday, Shero made it sound like getting past the Islanders was deserving of a trophy in itself. He spoke of his team as if it were a playoff novice rather than a former Cup winner fortified with grizzled leaders and all-world talent.
Of the Islanders series, he said, “It was an important step for us to win when we were expected to win.”
He just sounded a little too accepting of this four-year run of playoff failure. But in that, I suppose, he was only echoing the sentiments of ownership.
Somehow, this has all become acceptable.
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