Sean: Pat, the Pens retained Dan Bylsma today, giving him and his coaching staff two-year extensions. Even though I concede that he may be the best coach that would be available to the Penguins, I wouldn’t have brought him back for another season. This is the fourth consecutive year his team was bounced from the playoffs earlier than expected. In each case, the Pens lost to a lower-seeded team. One can argue that Pittsburgh ran into a hot goalie in the loss to Montreal. Injuries to Crosby and Malkin depleted the team against Tampa. The rival Flyers were a bad matchup for the Pens, and the entire series broke down into a shootout. But in my eyes, this year, there were to be no excuses. The Penguins were clearly the most talented squad heading into the playoffs, and the trade deadline acquisitions turned this season into a cup-or-bust team. The team busted, and somebody has to pay for that. I thought Bylsma would be the one, justified or not. What’s your take on this?
Patrick: Well Sean, I know that most of Pittsburgh was waiting with baited breath to see what Ray Shero and company would do in regards to Coach Bylsma. I am glad they took their time and stepped away from the disappointing playoff exit to make a decision, regardless of what the final outcome was. When thinking about the situation myself over the past week I pretty much came to the conclusion that I wasn’t sure that there was a correct answer, however. I do feel as though the coaching staff was mostly responsible for yet another playoff collapse and that if you can’t fire the players maybe a change was in order to try and get this talented team over the proverbial hump. That being said, I would never fire a coach without having someone in mind that is better suited to do the job that he is vacating. Maybe the Penguins organization weighed their options and realized this is the best solution for the short term. Not extending Bylsma would have made him a lame-duck head coach for next season and perhaps would have strained his relationship with some of the star players or put pressure on him that wasn’t needed. I’m not completely sure. I will say this, the last time the Pens extended a head coach like this they fired him in that same season and went on to win the cup. That coach that came in and eventually hoisted Lord Stanley’s cup… Dan Bylsma.
SM: Although Bylsma will be behind the bench next year, question marks still surround this team. As of now, the team has 10 notable free agents, and less than $8 million with which to work. In addition, the long-term futures of several significant players are now in doubt. Here are some moves I would consider this offseason:
* Trade Marc-Andre Fleury – After his extended benching this postseason, I think his relationship with Bylsma is irreparable. I don’t care what Bylsma has said in the past few days, his actions indicate he doesn’t have confidence in Fleury in critical moments. Even if Fleury were to stay in Pittsburgh and have a tremendous regular season, he would still be haunted by past playoff failures when the next postseason loomed. At this point, I think it’s best for everyone involved if he were to be dealt.
* Resign Pascal Dupuis – I realize Dupuis is due for a big pay raise, but I think the Pens can keep him for a relative bargain. Based on his performance, he should earn about $4 mil per year. However, I bet he would stay in Pittsburgh if he received a three-year deal in excess of $10 mil. He has played every role since he has arrived in Pittsburgh, and the Pens need to reward him.
* Keep Kris Letang – 26-year-old Norris candidates don’t grow on trees. Letang struggled in the playoffs, and he might never be a “shutdown” blueliner, but his youth and offensive output alone make him invaluable. A new contract looms, and Letang might seek an annual pay of $7 million. But based on some of the contracts given out to comparable blueliners (Suter, Weber, Karlsson), that seems to be pretty reasonable. Orpik, Martin, Murray and Eaton are all 32 or older, and none of the young defensive prospects have broken through yet in Pittsburgh. Dealing a guy who projects to be one of the best defenseman in the league for the next 6 or 7 years seems foolish.
* Trade Paul Martin – Most Pens fans seem to favor Martin over Letang based solely on the past 6 weeks. Since Martin had a renaissance this year, his value in a trade will be at an all-time high. In December, Pens fans would have begged any team to take Martin’s $5 million contract in exchange for practically nothing. Even though I don’t think Martin will regress back to 2011-12 form, I wouldn’t be surprised if he fails to repeat his impressive 2013 season. More importantly, the Pens could desperately use the money they are paying him to address a number of other pressing needs.
I will get into specific transactions that could work next, but I wanna hear your take on who should stay and who should go this offseason.
PW: Let me just start at the top here; Trading a franchise goaltender, like Fleury, is an enormous undertaking. This is an even bigger move than firing the coaching staff to most teams. To put a team with this much talent in the hands of an unproven guy and a 36 year old backup is doing them a disservice, in my mind. That is like putting worn (or in this case, bald) and deflated tires on an expensive and high-performance sports car. It just doesn’t make much sense if you are trying to get the most value out of the team in the long term. If the Penguins do trade Fleury, there most certainly needs to be a move that is made in conjunction that brings in a goalie that is proven and capable of winning and that has a salary that works with the cap situation the team is currently in. Good luck finding that fit!
SM: Using capgeek.com (which I highly suggest checking out for anything involving NHL contracts), I came up with the following moves for the Pens. These are all hypothetical, and I honestly have no idea if the trade I propose would interest either team. That being said, I believe this could be a successful template for offseason transactions:
*Resign Pascal Dupuis $3.25 mil (cap hit)
*Resign Craig Adams $.950 mil
*Resign Douglas Murray $2.5 mil
*Resign Dustin Jeffrey $.750 mil
*Resign Robert Bortuzzo $.800 mil
* Trade Marc-Andre Fleury, Paul Martin to Colorado for Ryan O’Reilly, Semyon Varlarmov and Matt Hunwick
*Demote Steve MacIntyre
Cap Space $.818 mil
Kunitz – Crosby – Dupuis
Neal – Malkin – O’Reilly
Jokinen – Sutter – Bennett
Jeffrey – Vitale – Adams
Letang – Orpik
Despres – Murray
Hunwick – Niskanen
Bortuzzo – Engelland
Varlarmov – Vokoun
Explanation: All three of the guys acquired from Colorado have just one year left on their contracts, although O’Reilly and Varlarmov will be restricted free agents. For next year, the move would be almost an even salary exchange, with approximately $10 million going each way. This way, the Pens can basically give each player a one-year audition, and then have the option to extend them or instead focus on more long-term contracts like Malkin’s and Letang’s.
In that scenario, the Pens would have approximately $30 million locked up between Crosby, Malkin, Letang, and Neal for 2014-15 and beyond. Add in Dupuis’ hypothetical contract and figure about $5 million for goalies, and that would leave about $27 million for another 15 skaters. This means the Pens would have very little money to spend to fill out the roster, likely creating a top heavy lineup. For this reason, I think it would be critical to eliminate the contracts of Fleury and Martin (both would earn $5 mil each in 2014-15) and not bring back many of the free agents that would require long-term commitment (Iginla, Morrow, Cooke, Kennedy).
PW: A lot of what you say here can make sense, Sean. But, your scenario leaves a huge hole at goalie. Perhaps they could make it work over the course of one season and give it a run, but how long can Vokoun carry a team before his wheels fall off? And what has Varlamov done to ever make any team feel as though he is a long term solution? I think if you ask most people what they would prefer on a team they would still say Fleury and Iginla over O’Reilly and Varlamov.
When it comes to Dupuis I think he may move on. This will be his last chance to get a significant contract and that is probably something the Penguins just can’t afford if it turns into a bidding war for his services. I know everyone that wants to see him stick around will mention a “hometown” deal and note that statistically speaking he is probably best suited playing on a line with Sidney Crosby rather than anywhere else in the league, but what are stats if you really want that big payday? That may just be too much for Pascal to pass up. I would like to see the guy stick around, certainly, but if a team throws Ryan Malone money at him it just may not be feasible for the Pens to match.
Martin played really well this season and at times was the team’s best all-around defensemen, but if they can move his salary I agree that they should do so. Getting Tanner Glass off of the books would be a great thing in my mind, as well. Glass, Jokinen, and Martin make up around $8 million combined and I’m fairly certain that money could be put to use in better ways. However, I could live with Jokinen if we had to keep him another year simply because he plays more than one position if needed, can win face-offs, and has shown he can bury the biscuit. The rest of your breakdown I could agree with outside of perhaps Matt Cooke. I think Cooke played a very strong series against Boston when virtually nobody else did. And I feel as though he plays a role and plays it well here. If the price is right then I would bring him back, personally.
As for Letang, I haven’t seen him play this poorly since his rookie season. I was constantly pointing out how out of position he was and how he was picking spots to jump into the offense or pinch at the absolute wrong, or at the very least, unneeded times. His sloppy play in the Islanders series cost the team a lot. The Isles appeared to rattle him with their speed and active sticks resulting in costly turnovers when he would attempt to clear pucks or make break-out passes. He settled down in the Ottawa series some, or he just used his blazing speed and skating ability to get back in the play when needed and a depleted Ottawa team didn’t expose him as much. But the wheels completely came off for him in the Boston series and he will need to change his ways for the better if he is to be worth the kind of money that he will most certainly be getting with his next contract.
Still, in my mind, keeping him is a no-brainer. This team has a core of Crosby, Malkin, Fleury, and Letang. The other pieces may be moved around or come and go in the interim, but those are the big players that this team is built around. And those players are the ones needed to win here. If any of them underperform the team struggles. Conversely, trading any of them is not a viable option because the return would never match the talent that is being given up and would solely be a salary dump. Salary dumps don’t tend to bring the cups in.
**Update** Just hours after this article was posted, the Pens signed Malkin to a massive contract extension. Although we both considered this a formality, the amount of money committed (approximately $9.5 million per year) probably makes a corresponding trade even more likely now.