By: Casey Shea

To borrow a line from Phil Bourque and the Pittsburgh Penguins, “Buckle Up, Baby” because this figures to be a crazy offseason.

The Penguins’ franchise was at a crossroads last night. A win may have kept the status quo going for another season. A loss likely meant big changes were coming.

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Even the most die-hard Penguins fans had to sense what was coming in Game 7 after blowing a 3-1 series lead.

The writing has been on the wall since the team resumed play following the Olympic break. There was no passion, energy or whatever you wish to call it. The Penguins played against more than their fair share of playoff teams and teams fighting to get into the dance down the stretch. Matching compete levels appeared to be the least of their concerns.

I will not subscribe to the theory that the amount of injuries was the primary reason either. It may play an expected role in the overall win-loss record.

However, there is no excuse for not competing. Competing and losing is one thing, not caring is something entirely different.

  • Watch Sidney Crosby Speak After Game 7

So, where do the Penguins go from here?

Is Dan Bylsma out of a job? What about Ray Shero? Do they retool the core of the team?

So many questions, so little time to find answers.

As for Bylsma, I think this was the final straw.

First of all, I don’t think he’s the main reason the Penguins couldn’t close out the Rangers. To me, this wasn’t a case of being outcoached. He altered lines, power play units and more in this series.

You could make a case that he didn’t do enough to have his team ready for Game 5 and 6. I’ll grant you that much, but this loss is mostly on the players to me.

In the end, Bylsma can rant and rave until he’s blue in the face, but if the players don’t execute, they bear the brunt of the blame. If they can’t get motivated to play a playoff game, that’s on them too.

Furthermore, I don’t think Bylsma is a bad coach. In fact, I think he’s a great coach. I just don’t think he’s the right coach for this team anymore.

Like many others, I found it surprising that he was brought back after last season’s sweep in the Eastern Conference Finals. When that happened, it was the perfect time to sever ties. Instead, the Penguins gave him a two-year extension.

Removing him now will be warranted, but it will seem reactionary and caving to an angry fan base.

The team failed once again and unfortunately for Bylsma, he’ll likely pay the price for it.

“I haven’t contemplated the price that it’s going to be, what that’s going to be or anything toward the future yet,” Bylsma said. “I had a ton of confidence in our team in winning this hockey game and that was the approach the whole way.”

  • Watch Dan Bylsma’s Post Game Press Conference

What the Penguins need at this juncture is a hard-nosed coach. A coach that won’t be afraid to sit Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin, James Neal, etc. when necessary. Whether you bench them for a period or a game, you can’t be afraid to do it.

Just because these guys are superstars, doesn’t mean they get a free pass. Making an example out of them sends a message down the roster.

As for the player personnel changes and a new identity, that’s all tied to what happens with Shero and Bylsma.

With Shero, I could see it going either way, but I tend to lean toward him being given one more year with a new coach.

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Much like Bylsma a year ago, I think Shero will be given a final chance to get it right, especially considering the salary cap going up and dead weight coming off the books.

Regardless of who the general manager may be, they are going to have a lot of decisions to make regarding expiring contracts.

Notable UFAs:

  • Deryk Engelland
  • Brian Gibbons
  • Tanner Glass
  • Marcel Goc
  • Jussi Jokinen
  • Matt Niskanen
  • Brooks Orpik
  • Lee Stempniak
  • Joe Vitale

Notable RFAs:

  • Simon Despres
  • Jayson Megna
  • Brandon Sutter

If you’re going to create a new identity for the team, there’s ways to do it with those free agent decisions. However, it won’t change the core of the team and that might need the biggest shake up.

The Penguins should listen to offers for anyone not named Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin and Marc-Andre Fleury.

Yes, I’m saying the Penguins should wholeheartedly back Fleury again.

He had nothing to do with this collapse. Sure, he gave up a couple of goals he’d like to have back in these playoffs. You know what? Every goalie in the playoffs has too.

If anything, Fleury proved to everyone that he can still play in the playoffs. He deserves more credit than he’s received.

The biggest priorities should be finding a way to re-sign Matt Niskanen and Jussi Jokinen. From there, find some viable bottom six forwards that other teams won’t want to play against.

  • Watch Matt Niskanen Speak After Game 7

Take a long, hard look at this current roster. Does anyone on it scare you? I’m not talking about offensive talent. I’m talking about guys that make defenders think twice about racing back to retrieve pucks.

Guys that can go out and grab momentum back by grinding it out in the offensive zone.

Guys that will step in when opponents start taking liberties with Crosby, Malkin, etc.

How many times did Marc Staal get away with headshots on Crosby in this series? It was more than one, which is exactly one more than should have been allowed.

I’m not advocating that the Penguins go out and get a goon here. I’m saying, the Penguins need guys that play with an edge, but can still chip in offensively.

Look at guys like Benoit Pouliot, Derick Brassard and Brian Boyle that helped turn the series in the Rangers’ favor.

Those are north-south players that finish off every check. That is the type of player the Penguins are lacking.

Like every NHL team, the Penguins’ expectations are to win the Stanley Cup each season.

Five straight playoff failures to varying degrees has put the Penguins at a critical time in their window of opportunity to win another.

At this point, expect anything to happen.

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