Sidney Crosby. (Bob Fina/Inside Hockey)

Pittsburgh: A New Era or the Beginning of the End?

I’m going to stick my neck out and make an audacious prediction: that by 2019 the Pittsburgh Penguins will no longer be winners and playoff contenders; that the once proud franchise will be severely humbled, broken, and desperately trying to rebuild; that Pittsburgh writers in 2019 will write that the beginning of the Penguins decline and fall began with the firings of general manager Ray Shero and head coach Dan Bylsma in May and June 2014, respectively.

The dual ouster of one of the finest GM-Head coaching tandems in NHL history has to be seen as a bonehead play by Penguins ownership. When one considers the collective crimes Shero and Bylsma were guilty of committing which resulted in their mutual firing: winning the 2009 Stanley Cup (in Shero’s case reaching the 2008 Stanley Cup finals as well); two divisional titles (in Shero’s case three); Bylsma winning the Jack Adams award in 2001 and this past season become the fastest man ever to earn 250 wins as an NHL coach and, also, becoming the greatest winningest head coach in Penguins history; and Shero taking a franchise that was on the rocks in 2006 and making them a powerhouse in the NHL.

It begs the hoary old cliché: did their punishment truly fit their crimes?

When Shero and Bylsma were removed I had Shero ranked 17th greatest GM ever and the fourth best GM among the active GMs; and the fifth best GM in the 2010s. In Dan Bylsma’s case I had Bylsma moving four steps in rank from 30th on my all-time list to 26th; the 7th best active head coach in terms of coaching value; and the fourth best head coach of the 2010s. In terms of Average Seasonal Rating (which measures the quality of a coaches’ effort) I had Bylsma ranked number one among all active NHL coaches and fifth all-time. (In Ray Shero’s case his ASR was 7th all-time and he was the third best among active GMS before he got fired).

And yet this sterling 24-carat gold managerial tandem was removed.

What’s more disconcerting about the removal of Shero and Bylsma are the men who have replaced them. New GM Jim Rutherford and new head coach Mike Johnston. Of the two, Mike Johnston has the better credentials. He coached brilliantly in the WHL with a coaching value of +31 in five seasons of coaching with three Ed Chynoweth Cup finals appearances.

The same cannot be said about the man who hired him: Jim Rutherford.

Rutherford is the epitome of managerial mediocrity. In 19 seasons of managing the Carolina Hurricanes, Rutherford’s managerial value is a pathetic +5 with an Average Season Rating of +0.263. Rutherford, more than anyone else, is responsible for the bleak tepidness of the Carolina Hurricanes: the years of barely finishing above or below .500; the near constant failure to reach the playoffs (14 failures in 19 seasons). Yes, Rutherford can boast three divisional titles but he also managed three last places finishes as well. Yes, Rutherford can brag about two Stanley Cup finals appearances in 2002 and 2006 and winning the 2006 Stanley Cup but they were the sole moments of brilliance amidst the long, dark tea time Rutherford perpetuated at Carolina. If you take away those two Stanley Cup seasons, Rutherford’s managerial value would be a horrendous -28.

And hiring such a man like Rutherford is meant to represent progress?

My guess is that Rutherford was the only person willing to fire Dan Bylsma since that was his first act as the Penguins GM. It’s not that were no qualified candidates for the Penguins GM position. Mike Gillis and George McPhee (formerly of Vancouver and Washington, respectively) two men with vastly superior managerial quality than Rutherford were available.

Where do Ray Shero and Dan Bylsma go?

I was surprised that Bylsma was not hired straight away during the off-season. When Vancouver took a long time to hire a new coach I theorized that they would go for Bylsma but Canucks opted for Willie Desjardins instead (but then that’s a future story from yours truly).

If there is a team which could use a dynamic duo like Shero and Bylsma it would have to be the Toronto Maple Leafs. Leafs head coach Randy Carlyle saw all his assistants get the ax while he alone survived. If that is not augury for future bad tidings then I don’t know what it is?

If Toronto stumbles out of the gate then surely Brendan Shanahan will pull the trigger and possibly replace Carlyle and David Nonis with Shero and Bylsma, a brilliant double-play maneuver if there ever was one.

If not Toronto then perhaps (in Bylsma’s case) the Detroit Red Wings, Head Coach Mike Babcock is in the last year of his coaching contract with Detroit. Everything hinges on whether the Wings will offer Babcock an extension and whether Babcock will accept it or perhaps take his gold medal coaching talents to another city? If Babcock does leave then Detroit would not do badly in hiring Bylsma as his replacement.

How long will the Penguins decline and fall take? I am reminded of an episode in baseball history when the New York Yankees replaced their managerial team of Casey Stengel and George Weiss as manager and general manager in 1960. George Weiss exited gracefully but told the press that the Yankees would fall in five years under the new management. During those first four years the Yankees won four pennants and two World Series titles but when the fifth year came around the New York Yankees dynastic reign ended ingloriously with a losing season and a second division finish.

The Penguins (under new management) may win big right now but what about down the road? Sometimes the aftershocks of drastic change take time to manifest themselves. Even juggernauts can move forward through inertia alone but eventually they do stop and become fodder for other juggernauts as well.

Past is Prologue.