Therrien should have no regrets; this Penguins team not as good as 2007-08

February, 16, 2009
I can't imagine Michel Therrien has too many regrets.

In his first full season (2006-07), he led the Pittsburgh Penguins to a 47-point improvement in the standings. That's pretty significant, eh?

In his second full season (2007-08), Therrien directed his team to within two victories of a Stanley Cup. That's pretty close to winning the whole thing, don't you think?

Penguins GM Ray Shero must have been impressed because he negotiated a new three-year deal with his coach some six weeks after the Cup finals. At the time, Shero called the new deal, "well deserved."

It was.

Now, nearly seven months later, Therrien is out. He's being replaced by the club's AHL coach, Dan Bylsma, who brings just a half season of head-coaching experience (at any professional level) to Pittsburgh.

Therrien definitely had a strange tenure in the Steel City. Despite his success, he was often rumored to be hanging on to his job by a thread, and it was an open secret he wasn't loved by many of his players. Then again, how many successful coaches are really loved by their players? I'll tell you -- not many.

Certainly, Therrien wasn't a media darling. He wasn't one of those coaches who liked to (or knew how to) engage the press. If he had been, he might have bought himself another couple of weeks on the job. In this case, those few weeks might have been very helpful.

Defenseman Sergei Gonchar just returned to the club's lineup Saturday. His presence -- as he continues to play himself back into game shape -- will be a big plus going forward. Of lesser significance, winger Ruslan Fedotenko also got back into action Saturday after missing 15 games with broken hand.

Of course, Saturday's game -- a dismal 6-2 loss in Toronto -- proved to be the last straw for management. The Penguins blew a 2-0 first-period lead en route to the embarrassing defeat, which left them five points out of a playoff spot with 25 games left on the schedule. It was the kind of loss that gets coaches fired. Clearly, the idea of missing the playoffs -- and missing the playoff money that comes with it -- isn't an appealing one to the club (or any club, for that matter).

So, Therrien got the boot, a victim of the lofty expectations that he helped to create.

This season, Therrien had been working uphill. After skating into June, the Penguins had a short training camp that preceded a season-opening jaunt in Sweden. In their first preseason game, Gonchar suffered the shoulder injury that put him on the shelf. Fellow defenseman Ryan Whitney was already out due to offseason foot surgery that sidelined him into December.

The club's roster also had a different look due to the departures of top-six wingers Marian Hossa and Ryan Malone. Despite the club's best efforts, Hossa opted to leave and sign a one-year contract in Detroit. Malone, on the other hand, appears to have been sacrificed to the salary cap. If Shero had known he was going to lose Hossa, he might have made a more serious effort to re-sign Malone, who inked a multiyear deal with Tampa Bay.

Shero signed free agents Fedotenko and Miroslav Satan to one-year deals as stop-gap replacements for the departed stars. Not shockingly, neither player has really panned out. The good news is, the team can cut ties with one or both at the end of the season.

Still, the bottom line is simple: The 2008-09 Penguins roster isn't nearly as good as the one that competed for the Cup.

Now, the offense is thinner. Without topflight help on the wing, superstar centers Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin don't have as much support. As a result, they've been used together on the same line. That's not an ideal situation for two guys who both want to play the middle. And when they're stacked on the same trio, the Penguins pretty much become a one-line team. In fact, this season, Therrien often had the team playing a passive, trapping game to hide the shortcomings.

Without Gonchar, the Penguins' defense has struggled for most of the season. That's what happens when you lose an elite puck mover; they're rare and just can't be replaced. Youngsters Kris Letang and Alex Goligoski (recently sent back to the AHL) did what they could, but they can't be expected to replace a veteran All-Star. No Gonchar meant more minutes for guys like Mark Eaton. Ouch!

Gonchar's absence also has been felt on the power play. Last season, he ran the league's fourth-best unit. This season, through Sunday, the Penguins rank 24th.

In goal, starter Marc-Andre Fleury has been injured and inconsistent. Last season, when Fleury went down with an ankle injury, backup Ty Conklin performed brilliantly to fill the void. This season, Dany Sabourin and Mathieu Garon haven't been able to step up. The club's crease woes only made things more difficult for Therrien.

Oddly, the Pens never made a move to add an experienced veteran to the locker room. They could have made an inexpensive pitch to add Brendan Shanahan, who remained available into January before signing a deal in New Jersey. They opted against it. Such a move might have been helpful. An experienced voice, a right-handed shot, a power-play sniper, Shanahan might have provided a boost.

Enter Bylsma. A classic overachiever as a journeyman grinder during several NHL seasons in Los Angeles and Anaheim, the 38-year-old Bylsma brings a fresh voice. That might be all he brings when you consider his head-coaching experience is limited to 50-plus AHL games.

A four-year star at Bowling Green from 1988 to '92, Bylsma will benefit from Gonchar's return, as well as any roster moves Shero can make between now and the March 4 trade deadline. He takes over a team that's in the early stages of a schedule segment that will see the Penguins play 10 of 13 on the road. That's rough. If they can survive the next few weeks, they'll have the benefit of an eight-game homestand, which begins on March 14.

For now, the Penguins are Bylsma's problem. Good luck, Danny.

Therrien, meanwhile, leaves with a very solid 135-105-32 record and very few regrets. After taking a young team from the basement to the Cup finals in three seasons, he shouldn't have too many.

E.J. Hradek

Senior Writer, ESPN The Magazine
E.J. Hradek is a senior writer at ESPN The Magazine, joining the staff prior to its launch in 1998. He began covering hockey as a writer/editor for Hockey Illustrated in 1989.


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