PITTSBURGH (KDKA) – While the Stanley Cup is mere days away from being handed out to either the Los Angeles Kings or New Jersey Devils, the Pittsburgh Penguins are still analyzing just what went wrong this year.
On Monday, the Penguins traded for goaltender Tomas Vokoun as they start to prepare their roster for the upcoming season.
Last week, head coach Dan Bylsma sat down with KDKA-TV’s Bob Pompeani to talk about how the offseason is going and if he’s over the early exit yet.
“I don’t feel that I’ve gotten over it just yet. I think still watching hockey last night, watching the first game in the Finals and I got a couple text messages in that game. Our expectation of where we thought we were as a team, how good of a regular season we had, getting Sidney Crosby back with 14 games left, we really had much higher expectations,” Bylsma said.
“We know we lost to a good team. We know we lost to the sixth best record in the league, but really disappointing, really gut-wrenching and hasn’t really left yet. Haven’t turned the page and looked toward next year yet. Still dealing emotionally and looking at what we can learn and what we maybe didn’t do the right way this past postseason.”
Many things went wrong in the opening round loss to the Flyers, but Bylsma believes that a porous penalty kill was a big factor.
“Statistically speaking, I think when you give up so many goals and the save percentage is what it is and the special teams again are astronomically low – it’s around 50 percent, 49 percent – you’re not going to win a lot of playoff series with just having those numbers,” Bylsma said.
“Special teams is probably the hardest one to look at. Even Marc-Andre Fleury is a tough one to look at. He has 42 wins, ties a franchise record had some great times throughout the year. Great numbers and getting under .850 as a save percentage is just not where he wants to be at, is at normally, has been at for the whole year long when he had 42 wins.”
The Penguins have been near or at the top of the league in penalty killing over the last two years, but the Flyers had their way and scored seemingly at will in the first round. Bylsma said that part of the breakdown was mental.
“We didn’t do the job, we came up short. We got affected mentally. They were 1-for-1 in Game 1 in the third period to tie it up. They were 1-for-2 in Game 2. Their first power play in Game 2 resulted in a power play goal. So, the mental aspect of giving up one in Game 1 that was the tying goal, giving up the first one in Game 2 that was a big goal for them in addition to the shorthanded goals they got in Game 2, that mentally took a chunk out of our penalty kill,” Bylsma said.
The NHL’s current Collective Bargaining Agreement is set to expire later this summer. The NHL lost a season of play after the last CBA expired and going down that road again is nothing either side ultimately wants anything to do with.
Under the current salary cap system, teams are forced to make tough decisions about which star players to keep and which to let go. In the Penguins’ case, they are faced with expriing contracts for both Sidney Crosby and Jordan Staal at the end of the upcoming season.
“Well there’s lots of factors that go into it. You mentioned the CBA and where that’s going to go. You mentioned the salary cap and where that’s going to go. Those are two different things coming into the summer that influence this situation with our ability to have everybody play here. The one thing we have right now, is all three are signed to play here next year. So, yes we can talk to these guys and Jordan Staal on July 1 or after July 1 about future years. But, right now, we have them all and they’re all coming back to play here next year based on that fact,” Bylsma said.
Bylsma also said that it’s up to General Manager Ray Shero to crunch the numbers and fit the team under the salary cap, but he enjoys being able to coach guys like Staal, Crosby and Evgeni Malkin.
“I like coaching them all. I like every one of those guys. We’re talking about twp MVP guys and a great center in Jordan Staal that can play in every situation,” Bylsma said.
As the season began to wind down, rumors started to swirl that Staal was unhappy with his current role with the Penguins and would likely test free agency when his contract expires.
Bylsma said that regardless of who is in the lineup, Staal’s role doesn’t change a whole lot. He plays on the penalty kill and goes up against the opponent’s top lines on a nightly basis.
Staal has shown he can put the puck in the back of the net and took his game to a different level this season by registering 25 goals and 25 assists in just 62 games. Against the Flyers, he was arguably the Penguins’ best player with six goals and three assists in six games.
“Have I talked to Jordan about playing for our team, what his role is? Yeah, he loves Pittsburgh. He loves having Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin on his team. They’re great players. Loves the city, loves the team, loves the guys in that room. So, yeah, I’ve talked about those things, we’ve talked about those situations. He’s 23-years-old. He’s a young, young kid. He’s certainly improved I think every year. He really stepped it up this year in terms of point per game production and what he could do goal scoring wise. But, I think hes still thinks that’s the case for him. I don’t think he wants to be stuck in a checking type of role because he has proven he can produce. No one here wants Jordan to be stuck in a role. He’s a big time player,” Bylsma said.
In addition to the depth of forwards the Penguins have, there’s a pretty big log jam of NHL-caliber defensemen in the organization.
While Paul Martin, Zbynek Michalek, Brooks Orpik, Kris Letang, Ben Lovejoy, Deryk Engelland and Matt Niskanen were the usual guys to dress for the Pens this season, there are decisions to be made there as well.
Niskanen is a restricted free agent and will likely seek a raise over the $1.75 million he earned last season and there are guys in the minors who have shown they can play at the NHL level.
“Paul Martin, be criticized or not criticized, Michalek be criticized or not, they’re good players with actually pretty good contracts. In the open market, they would be higher contracts than they are right now for us. They’re good players in addition to Brooks Orpik and Letang,” Bylsma said.
“The interesting part now is Brian Strait and Robert Bortuzzo are guys that have proven that from our scouts and from Wilkes-Barre are NHL defensemen playing in the American Hockey League at times. They have to go through waivers. So, at the end of training camp, if they’re not on our team they’re gonna have to go through waivers and there’s a good chance they’ll be picked up.”
In the end, the Penguins failed to get the job done and fell very short of their goals this season. Bylsma knows that and shoulders some of the responsibility for the team making an early exit in the playoffs for the third straight season since winning the Stanley Cup in 2009.
“The one thing that I think in terms of evaluation of where we were at is we didn’t play our best in the playoffs. We weren’t at our best in the playoffs and that’s the responsibility of the coach and I’ll take that on myself,” Bylsma said.
The Penguins will have more decisions to make in the very near future with the NHL Draft being held at Consol Energy Center on June 22-23 and free agency to soon follow on July 1.