CHICAGO – The Pittsburgh Penguins could have blown it all up.
Swept out of the Stanley Cup playoffs in the Eastern Conference final by the Boston Bruins, speculation swirled about the futures of coach Dan Bylsma, superstar Evgeni Malkin and goaltender Marc-Andre Fleury.
Amid calls for action, general manager Ray Shero got busy after the Penguins were ousted. But his moves have been the opposite of a complete overhaul.
“It’s easy to change,” Shero said Wednesday in Pittsburgh.
Shero extended Bylsma and his assistants’ contracts two years through the 2015-16 season, gave Fleury a vote of confidence as the team’s franchise goaltender and then Thursday agreed to terms with Malkin on an eight-year, $76-million contract extension that could keep him with the Penguins for the balance of his NHL career. It was the equivalent of doubling-down on what has worked so well for years, even though it didn’t end well in the playoffs.
“I think Ray believes in the core group that he has, and he believes he can win with them,” Malkin’s agent, J.P. Barry, said in a phone interview. “They made the final four this year, again, and they had a bad round, for sure. But I think he believes in this core and he wants to stay the course and believes his team can win. That’s ultimately what his assessment was.”
It’s an assessment that some general managers might not have made, given the raw emotions of the Penguins going from Cup favourites to victims of a sweep in less than a week. Shero cited the Detroit Red Wings as a model of continuity, and staying the course in Pittsburgh follows what he believes is a similar pattern.
Next season will be Shero’s eighth as GM and Bylsma’s fourth full one as head coach. It will be the seventh season with Malkin, Fleury, captain Sidney Crosby and defenceman Kris Letang playing together, more than four years removed from that core group winning the Stanley Cup.
In not firing Bylsma and instead extending him, Shero followed his idea of sticking with a path that he believes in, no matter the external criticism.
“Public sentiment sometime isn’t kind,” Shero said. “I believe in Dan Bylsma, and I believe in our coaching staff.”
Believing in a Cup-winning coach who very well could lead the U.S. team in the 2014 Olympics in Sochi doesn’t take much of a leap of faith, and neither does committing to Malkin, who led the Penguins with 16 points in the playoffs despite being held to zero in the conference final. Fleury’s playoff stumbles could’ve been a tougher sell, but Bylsma and Shero made it clear that the 28-year-old was their goaltender of the present and future.
“The faith I have in Marc-Andre Fleury hasn’t waned,” Shero said.
Nor has Malkin’s faith in the direction of the franchise that gave the No. 2 pick in the 2004 draft a $10-million signing bonus and a $9.5-million cap hit on par with that of No. 1 selection Alex Ovechkin.
“We won Stanley Cup before and I believe we will win again because it’s good people, good guys,” Malkin said on a conference call Thursday. “This here is good team, and I hope we win Stanley Cup.”
Before the Penguins take another run at it, more questions are left to be answered. Letang is entering the final year of his contract, and Shero told reporters in Pittsburgh on Thursday that he didn’t know how the process would go toward securing an extension. Pascal Dupuis, Matt Cooke and deadline acquisitions Jarome Iginla, Brenden Morrow and Douglas Murray are all set to be unrestricted free agents July 5.
Shero realizes that, given salary-cap restraints, his team “is going to change, and that’s the way it is.” But thanks to moves that keep Bylsma and Malkin around for at least a little while, the Penguins won’t undergo a total team makeover this summer.
And that’s more than OK with Malkin.
“It’s not a surprise for me,” he said. “I know everyone thought we’d win the Stanley Cup. I know we lost 4-0, but we can still learn (from) this year. I’m glad Dan stay here, and I hope we win together.”