There will be significant changes to the Pittsburgh Penguins this offseason. The NHL salary cap would have ensured that, even if the team hadn’t suffered a disappointing, four-game sweep at the hands of the Boston Bruins in the Eastern Conference Final.
But, just days after the current team gathered for the final time at CONSOL Energy Center for their exit interviews and to clean out their lockers, the Penguins quickly made it clear that a few key positions would be staying the same. Head coach Dan Bylsma and assistants Tony Granato and Todd Reirden were given two-year contract extensions, star center Evgeni Malkin signed on for eight more years, and beleaguered starting netminder Marc-Andre Fleury received assurance that he would, in fact, be returning as the team’s starting goaltender.
Bylsma, assistants extended
Penguins GM Ray Shero spent a long day Tuesday meeting with owners Mario Lemieux and Ron Burkle about the team’s personnel, direction and coaching staff. All three agreed Bylsma was still their man.
“When I came here seven years ago, one of the things I wanted to do was establish a tradition of trying to be a playoff team every year and build upon that,” Shero said. “I think we’ve been able to establish something very special here, and my vision moving forward, in evaluating the direction I want to go with this franchise, is that I really believe we have a great head coach in Dan Bylsma. I believe he’s the coach to lead us forward.
“I’m really looking forward to moving forward with this group, continuing our success on the ice and trying again to win the Stanley Cup. I believe this group of coaches and players are a foundation that’s in place to continue moving forward to try to do that.”
Shero said the extension was an important statement to make in support of Bylsma, already the franchise’s longest-tenured coach, who was entering the last year of his contract. The players also backed their coach during exit interviews Sunday.
“Public sentiment is not kind. ‘Change the coach’ is always the thing to do, [but] maybe it’s not,” Shero said. “I think I have a very good, open relationship with Dan Bylsma, but he reports to me; he’s my coach. It’s not a buddy-buddy system. I have a responsibility to ownership, our fans, my family to do what I think is right for the team.
“I really believe that, in my evaluation of the team moving forward, I have a very good coach who I want to continue to work with to lead this team. I want to reward him with an extension that shows him and shows people he’s my coach and I believe in him. That’s the way I want to run this business.”
Bylsma also couldn’t help hearing the public sentiment since the end of the Bruins series.
“I would be lying to say I was able to block all that stuff out,” he said. “When my brothers, who don’t live in Pittsburgh, text me and ask about it, or my son’s at the age where he listens to the radio and hears that stuff, I hear [it] kind of indirectly. It certainly does have an effect on your conversations with your family, but that’s outside noise.
“I think the confidence of Ray Shero, Ron Burkle and Mario Lemieux that I am the coach of this team now and going forward, and with this coaching staff, was very big for us, giving that vote for what we’re doing. It was tough the last couple days, dealing with the disappointment of losing and not moving on to the Stanley Cup, but that confidence in our group is very important.”
Malkin signs for league-maximum eight years
The Penguins also wanted to lock up Malkin before he entered the final year of his contract and, Thursday, they did that, signing him to the league’s maximum term of eight years for $76 million. That equates to an annual salary cap hit of $9.5 million beginning in 2014-15, an increase of $800,000 over his current, $8.7 million per year cap hit.
“When you’re trying to enter a long-term agreement with this sort of money that ownership is committing, the first question I always ask is, ‘Do you want to be here?’” Shero said of the 26-year-old Malkin, who has won both the Hart Trophy as regular-season MVP and the Conn Smythe Trophy as playoff MVP. “He made it very clear that this was where he wanted to play and he wanted to sign an extension. And I believe his best days could be ahead of him.”
Malkin said it was an easy decision to commit to playing the prime of his career with the Penguins, particularly captain Sidney Crosby, who was locked up for a 12-year deal lasting through 2024-25 before the new collective bargaining agreement kicked in.
“I like playing with him. I like to sometimes battle with him, because I think he is the best player in the world,” Malkin said. “Every day, I look to Sid in practice and learn how to work hard from him. We are two big players and I think we help the team to win. I know some players like to play with us and sign contracts in Pittsburgh because we play in Pittsburgh. It’s good for the team.
“We’re still young, you know? We’re a group who won the Stanley Cup before, and I believe we will win again.”
Fleury will be back
When Bylsma had his season-ending press conference Sunday, he stated flatly that goaltender Marc-Andre Fleury, who lost his job to backup Tomas Vokoun late in the first playoff round, would return as next season’s starting netminder. Although the Penguins did not advance to the Stanley Cup Final, Vokoun shined, particularly in Games 3 and 4 of the Eastern Conference Final when he allowed only three goals over nearly eight periods.
Bylsma’s statement came as a surprise to many who felt the organization had demonstrated a loss of confidence in Fleury and expected them to shop him – and the two remaining years of his contract, at $5 million per year – this summer. Wednesday, however, Shero gave Fleury the same strong vote of confidence, stating that, although he values the 36-year-old Vokoun for his solid play, veteran leadership and team-first attitude, he would not move his 28-year-old starter.
“This is the best goaltending we’ve had in a long time, I believe,” Shero said. “Tomas is the perfect guy for what we have here and, whenever he is called upon, he’s just doing his job. That’s where he is in his career. I’m not getting rid of Marc-Andre Fleury, provided Marc wants to be part of it here and come back. He’s a young goalie. It’s been really tough [for him in the playoffs], and I had that conversation with him [about] some of the things I really expect him to do this summer – which I believe that, for the first time, he’s really ready to embrace and try to do to improve.”
Shero declined to elaborate on the specifics of what he asked Fleury to work on.
“That’s personal but, with Marc, I think we all see it’s about focus and concentration sometimes,” Shero said. “[He has] great athletic ability. He will have a new goalie coach [as Gilles Meloche assumes a scouting position after 27 years in the organization], so that will be a change for him. We talk about the playoffs, and that is certainly an area that he needs improvement on, and concentration and belief to get back to where he was in 2008-09. I believe he can do that, there’s certain steps he’s got to do to get there, and I guess we’ll see.
“It’s difficult to replace 40 wins a year, and I can’t replace that. I don’t believe I can go out and get someone like that. This year, he was third in the league in wins … when you look back over the last four years combined, no one has won more games than Marc-Andre Fleury. That’s a fact, and that’s the belief I have in him. He’s a great kid, great competitor, and it’s going to be up to him, in terms of his career now, to take the next steps to get back. And we want to work with him.”
With those positions solidified, the Penguins will turn their attention to impending free agents – forward Pascal Dupuis, Crosby’s longtime linemate, tops their priority list – and trying to extend Norris Trophy candidate Kris Letang, who has one year remaining on his deal. The 26-year-old defenseman is expected to command at least double his current, $3.5 million salary on the open market, and those numbers may result in Pittsburgh needing to consider trading him.
The Penguins must make decisions on a total of seven unrestricted and three restricted free agents, and most, if not all, of the high-profile additions they made at the trade deadline will likely prove impossible to keep under the cap.
“I believe we have a really good hockey team, a special group of guys,” Shero said. “This team is going to change; that’s the way it is. It happens every year with the salary cap, free agency, trades. Change is sometimes good; change is sometimes hard.
“The goal is to have a team that can entertain the fans, that can compete for a Cup, and to put ourselves in that position.”