Monday, March 30, 2015

While the roster overhaul is nice, it started too late

PITTSBURGH, PA - MARCH 29: Chris Kunitz #14 of the Pittsburgh Penguins looks to pass against the San Jose Sharks at Consol Energy Center on March 29, 2015 in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. (Photo by Matt Kincaid/Getty Images)

General Manager Jim Rutherford did a decent job reconstructing the Penguins. The jury is still out on coach Mike Johnston. Hopefully, the Penguins won’t continue their descent into chip-and-chase jabroni hockey hell.

But Rutherford and Johnston inherited a situation that was difficult to fix, all the more so because fixing it should have started much longer ago than this past off-season.
Go back to spring 2013. The Penguins got humiliated in the Eastern Conference final, losing four straight to Boston. The most damning development of the past five years, by the way, is not having done so much as win a game in a conference final.
To disappoint is one thing. But, given the Penguins’ talent, not coming even remotely close to another Stanley Cup final is inexcusable.
The aftermath of that loss to Boston was the time to make major changes. It was a fourth-straight postseason failure, each of a different variety.
Losing in the second round to Montreal in 2010 was understandable: The Penguins were exhausted after reaching two straight finals, and five Penguins (all key players) participated in that year’s Olympics.
But, after that, the Penguins blew a three-games-to-one lead against Tampa Bay in 2011. They totally imploded against arch-rival Philadelphia in 2012. They scored just two goals during the sweep at Boston’s hands in 2013.
The case could have been made for firing coach Dan Bylsma in 2012, after the Philadelphia debacle. Bylsma should have surely been toast in 2013.
Instead, on the heels of a string of epic fails, Bylsma inexplicably got a two-year contract extension. Unless Bylsma gets another coaching job, the Penguins are obligated to pay him through next season.
That same off-season, GM Ray Shero gave a three-year contract extension to Chris Kunitz and a four-year contract to Pascal Dupuis. Both wingers are tied to the Penguins through 2016-17. Kunitz was 33 when he signed his deal. Dupuis was 34. Kunitz carries an annual salary cap figure of $3.85 million. Dupuis’ cap hit is $3.75M.
Dupuis and Kunitz are exactly the kind of players that should be treated as disposable under a cap system. Aging and likely to fade. Let another team overpay them.
Signing one would have been debatable, but OK. Keeping both was insane.
Proof, meet pudding: Injury and illness have limited Dupuis to just 54 games since signing, and his career is in jeopardy. Going into Sunday's contest versus San Jose, Kunitz had just one goal in his past 26 games. Either could resurrect. But how would you bet?
Shero kept going back to the future that summer, signing free-agent defenseman Rob Scuderi to a four-year contract with a cap hit of $3.375M.
Shero said that the Penguins had never replaced Scuderi after Scuderi left Pittsburgh following the 2009 Stanley Cup. They still haven’t. The current Scuderi is nothing like the Scuderi that departed. His stick strength has vanished. His puck-moving capabilities are negligible. He’s a high-priced no. 5 defenseman, at best.
Too long. Too much. Too old. The Penguins are stuck with Dupuis, Kunitz and Scuderi. Those contracts kill the Penguins’ cap, not those belonging to legit stars.
The Penguins terminated Shero and Bylsma after blowing a three-games-to-one lead to the New York Rangers in the second round of last year’s playoffs.
By the time the Penguins were eliminated, Nashville had already hired Peter Laviolette as its new coach. By the time Bylsma was fired, Washington had already hired Barry Trotz as its new coach. The Penguins settled for Johnston, a Jr. A coach. Not their top choice.
Then, perhaps to prove that he, too, is capable of making a bad signing, Rutherford inked defenseman Christian Ehrhoff to a one-year, $4m deal. Injuries have changed circumstances, but the Penguins have lots of defensemen. They didn’t need Ehrhoff.
The Penguins need wings. Did then, do now. Just not Dupuis and Kunitz.
The Penguins may surprise in the post-season. They may disappoint yet again.
But any of this season’s problems, whether past or yet to come, should hardly be seen as shocking. It took time and effort to dig this hole. And it's deep.
Mark Madden hosts a radio show 3-6 p.m. weekdays on WXDX-FM (105.9).
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