PITTSBURGH, Pa. – Ray Shero doesn’t believe the Pittsburgh Penguins need to blow things up.
The general manager, however, understands things certainly need to be tweaked after another early playoff exit.
The tweaks will not include a coaching change or—at least for now—parting ways with one of its young stars to fortify the roster elsewhere.
Instead, Shero will spend the next few months trying to diagnose what went wrong and how a team a deemed a Stanley Cup favourite when the post-season began two weeks ago spent Tuesday cleaning out its dressing room after getting whipped by the Philadelphia Flyers.
“Why it unraveled in 10 days, that’s my job to try and figure out,” Shero said.
There are plenty of places to start. The head coaching job isn’t one of them.
“I have a lot of belief in our coach Dan Bylsma,” Shero said. “I believe he’s the right coach for this hockey team.”
A club that for all its offensive firepower couldn’t find any answers at the other end of the ice.
Pittsburgh gave up 30 goals to the Flyers, including 12 on the power play, and fell behind 3-0 so quickly it was all the Penguins could do to save a little pride and extend the series to six games before Philadelphia closed it out.
Defencemen Paul Martin and Zbynek Michalek, brought in as high-priced free agents two years ago to shore up the blue line, struggled for most of the season and were ineffective in the playoffs.
Shero declined to place the blame squarely on the pairing, noting it was a team-wide effort.
“When you give up 30 goals in six games in a playoff series, that’s not good,” he said. “Both players are really good players in this league.”
Ones that could be difficult to move in the off-season. Martin is due $5 million next year, Michalek $4 million. That’s a lot of money, particularly at a time when franchises don’t know what the next collective bargaining agreement is going to look like.
The current deal expires in the fall. Though Shero will try to treat it as “business as usual,” not knowing what the financial landscape of the league is going to look like next season will make it difficult to scratch off every item on his to-do list.
Star centres Sidney Crosby and Jordan Staal are one year away from becoming free agents. NHL rules prevent teams from negotiating an extension until a player enters the final year of his current deal. Shero would love to keep both in the fold long-term.
It may have to wait.
“Our goal is to re-sign both of them,” Shero said. “I think they’re both special hockey players and they’re great assets. They’re at a young age. They’re in their prime.”
And they’re not interested in leaving.
“I love being here and I love the guys in the room,” said Staal, who led the Penguins with six playoff goals. “And that’s a huge factor for myself.”
Crosby has never wavered in his preference to remain in Pittsburgh. Still, the 2009 MVP remains pragmatic.
“It’s going to be something that the team and I will both wait to see what makes sense,” he said. “It’s hard being in the situation that it is with the CBA. Typically you’d start talking soon. It might be a matter of waiting to see how it plays out and what makes sense for both sides.”
Despite the bitter defeat to the Flyers, perhaps the one positive was Crosby’s health. Concussion-like symptoms limited him to 22 games in the regular season. But he says he feels fine after spending six games getting knocked around by Philadelphia.
“(I want to) make sure I have a healthy summer and feel good coming into next season,” he said. “That’s the most important thing. That’s where I’m at. I want to have a good summer.”
Not wanting to push it, Crosby doesn’t plan to play for Team Canada in this summer’s World Championships. Crosby’s last venture into international play ended with him scoring the gold medal-winning goal against the U.S. in the 2010 Vancouver Olympics.
It’s a sweet memory but Crosby is more concerned about jeopardizing his future after a bumpy 16 months.
“Typically I’d be (at worlds) in a second,” he said. “This isn’t a normal situation. This isn’t me trying to hide from the World Championships. I love playing for Team Canada.”
Malkin, who led the NHL with 109 points, will play for Russia and offers have been extended to several other players, including Canadian defenceman Kris Letang and forward James Neal. Neal’s thumb injury may prevent him from playing this summer and Letang is dealing with a hip issue.
Shero has no problem with his top players staying active over the summer. He’ll be too busy trying to figure out how a franchise that appeared on the verge of a dynasty after winning the Cup in 2009 has now lost three straight playoff series.
“They’ve achieved a lot, but this league is tough, we see it now,” Shero said. “There are 19 teams like us sitting out right now, some real good ones too. It’s a school of hard knocks and we’re going to see if we can bounce back.”
Most of the answers lie in the dressing room. One that emptied out earlier than expected.