When the Pittsburgh Penguins were eliminated by the New York Rangers in the second round of the 2014 Stanley Cup Playoffs, their fifth straight postseason exit to a lower seeded team, it was pretty much a given that some sort of change was going to come in the organization as a result.
The assumption was that coach Dan Bylsma would be gone and general manager Ray Shero would be on the hot seat and facing the possibility of losing his job as well.
The Penguins ended up doing the exact opposite.
The team announced on Friday that Shero, after serving as the team's general manager for eight years, had been relieved of his duties while the new general manager would decide the fate of the coaching staff and hockey operations department.
Since Bylsma remains the coach of the Penguins, at least until the new general manager makes a decision on his future, let's just stick with the analysis of Shero.
Overall, his eight years in Pittsburgh were pretty much a success and Penguins fans should remember the years positively. They never missed the playoffs, they went to three Eastern Conference Finals, two Stanley Cup Finals, and won it once. In the salary cap era, that's pretty impressive. And while fans and analysts might argue that a team with Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin maybe should have won another championship, that might be stretching it a bit. Stanley Cups are hard enough to win once. It's even harder to win it twice.
The problem isn't that they didn't win another one.
The problem is that over the past couple of years cracks started to emerge in the foundation of the organization as they failed to put together a team around their superstar centers (Crosby and Malkin) that could once again make them a legitimate contender. And even though they won a lot of games over the past two seasons, it was pretty clear that they were not quite on the same level as teams like the Chicago Blackhawks, Boston Bruins, or Los Angeles Kings. Even the Rangers team that beat them seemed to be a deeper and more balanced team.
The draft was a major issue in the Shero era, and it's not always as simple saying that they missed on picks. Making matters worse was how many draft picks (both the picks themselves, and the players that were selected). In eight years, the Penguins traded seven first-or second-round picks. Sometimes (for Marian Hossa) it worked. Others times (Jordan Leopold, Nils Ekman, Douglas Murray) it did not. And that doesn't included prospects like Angelo Esposito and Joe Morrow that were dealt after being selected in the first round (moving Esposito as part of the Hossa trade worked out in their favor; the Morrow for Brenden Morrow did not). That's a lot of assets going out the door with at times little long-term investment coming back the other way.
Other first round picks like Simon Despres and Beau Bennett that remain have never been able to get a consistent look in the NHL for a variety of reasons.
There is definitely an element of luck to the NHL draft, and once you get past the first five or seven picks in a given year it can be a total crapshoot as to whether or not you find a useful player. But the best way to give yourself a chance is to have as many shots at it as possible. The combination of the Penguins not being able to develop the picks they did keep, as well their willingness to trade picks in an effort to add depth has been a major disadvantage when it comes to producing their own talent.
But that wasn't the only strike against Shero in recent years.
While he hit several home runs in trades (Marian Hossa and Pascal Dupuis from Atlanta, Chris Kunitz from Anaheim, James Neal and Matt Niskanen from Dallas, Jussi Jokinen from Carolina) and free agency (Paul Martin) there were also a lot of strikeouts. And over the past couple of years the strikeouts seemed to be more of the norm.
They inexplicably gave Tanner Glass a two-year contract that guaranteed him more than $1 million per season.
The 2013 trade deadline that brought them Jarome Iginla, Morrow, Murray, and Jokinen, which received almost universal praise at the time, ended up making the team older and slower. Only Jokinen made an impact beyond the final two months of that season, and as a free agent is far from a guarantee to be back next season. They followed that up by signing a 35-year-old Rob Scuderi to a four-year contract and giving Kunitz and Dupuis long-term contract extensions that will take them into their 30s. You can talk about the Penguins having too much cap space tied up in their superstars and how it impacts their ability to fill in around them all you want, but when you go into a season and have more than $4.5 million (an amount that could probably get you a couple of useful third-liners) going to players like Glass and Scuderi, that seems to be an even bigger issue.
It's probably a matter of when and not if Bylsma is let go, and he certainly has his shortcomings and a change is probably needed. But when looking at the issues with the Penguins it seems that they definitely started in the general managers office and that a change there was needed just as much.