by: Dejan Kovacevic, TribLIVE Updated:
PITTSBURGH - Mario Lemieux has a brilliant hockey mind, one of the brightest in the sport's history. But he's never needed that to grasp that the founding principal of the Penguins’ greatest successes has been star power. And preserving and building around that star power.
Ron Burkle has a brilliant business mind. He's a self-made billionaire who built his grocery empire from the ground up. But he'll never need that to grasp that, if he's got two of the most valuable assets in his industry, his top priority has to be to protecting and enhancing their value.
These guys are plenty hacked off. I've mentioned that, right?
OK, good. So I don't have to repeat that the Penguins' owners will take action now that the team's latest choke/gag/collapse/freefall/fold turned official with the 2-1 loss to the New York Rangers in Game 7 of their Stanley Cup playoff series Tuesday at Consol Energy Center.
Expect the action to be seismic.
Expect it to be the “end of an era,” as Pittsburgh's mayor, Bill Peduto, tweeted right at the final horn.
Expect it to result in the firings of Ray Shero and Dan Bylsma.
And what's more, I'm told, expect it to be based primarily on an organization-wide failure at supporting and protecting Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin.
There are other issues, but none is close to that one. Lemieux and Burkle have been seething at how their stars, in whom they've invested $180 million, were treated in these playoffs. Not at opponents or officiating, but at their own team's inability/unwillingness to address it.
I'll back Lemieux and Burkle emphatically: It's time for a change.
That isn't to excuse the top two stars, Crosby especially. Neither was good enough, Crosby especially. Neither was tough enough, Crosby especially.
Malkin wound up with six goals and was a skating terror in these final three losses but also went scoreless in the last two.
And Crosby — I can't believe I'm about to type this — scored one goal in the playoffs.
One! One goal in 13 games for the NHL's scoring champ and slam-dunk MVP!
“Obviously, I would have liked to score more, contribute more,” Crosby said after the game, when he also affirmed one final time he was healthy. “It wasn't a lack of effort or competing. But it doesn't make it any easier, I'll tell you that.”
Let's not mince words here: The captain let down his team.
But be equally sure that the reverse is true, and that's going to prove far more pivotal.
There's no intelligent reason the Penguins — the front office, the coaching staff and, yes, Crosby's teammates — should have allowed him to take a fraction of the abuse he did. It was disgraceful. It should have been embarrassing, though I'm not sure it was. There never was an answer for Columbus' Brandon Dubinsky. Nor the Rangers' Marc Staal. Those two and everyone else did as much damage as they pleased without ever having to look over their shoulders.
Blame Shero, mostly.
What happened to this GM's appreciation for tough, even dirty players, filling out his third and fourth lines?
Were Marcel Goc and Lee Stempniak all that could be culled as deadline answers?
Draft picks, anyone?
It's one thing to not acquire front-line forwards. They're expensive in cash and/or trade. But there's nothing easier or cheaper than a checking forward. And it's beyond reason that Shero gutted his roster of its guts and replaced it with a million and a half bucks worth of waiver-available Taylor Pyatt.
That can get a guy fired.
But blame Bylsma, too.
What little toughness Shero provided scarcely saw the ice. Tanner Glass was scratched from Games 2-6 even though the Penguins faced a schedule-tormented opponent and had everything to gain from being more physical. Deryk Engelland never dressed at all. This coach essentially watched with arms folded while his captain was assaulted shift after shift.
That can get a guy fired, too.
“I think you want to just punch a ticket if you want to get to the conference finals,” Bylsma said to a reporter afterward. “ It's a hard process, a hard thing to move on.”
No, Coach. No one wanted a punched ticket. They wanted some punch in this lifeless team. That capacity crowd that fairly shook the place for Game 7 wanted desperately to not be the only ones in there who cared.
There's no joy in ripping Shero or Bylsma. Both are fine men. Both have ingrained themselves into the community and the Penguins' larger family. Both were enormous parts of the 2009 championship.
But neither Crosby nor Malkin is going anywhere, and that's as it should be. They're phenomenal, iconic players who belong in this city. And yes, I still believe they can be playoff performers under better circumstances. That means a bigger, stronger, meaner, faster, deeper supporting cast, plus a coach to bring back tightness, discipline, passion and so much else that's lacking.
Hockey is a business, and the team's top hockey mind and top business mind have a couple of tough decisions to make.
They'll be a lot tougher than anything their team showed.