PITTSBURGH – The Pittsburgh Penguins hired Ray Shero as general manager eight years ago with the mandate to build a roster around two of the game’s brightest stars and turn ticker-tape parades through downtown into an annual rite of spring.
Nearly a decade – but just one Stanley Cup later – Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin find themselves on a perennially underachieving team. And Shero finds himself out of a job.
The Penguins fired Shero Friday, three days after another early playoff exit, this one a seven-game loss to the New York Rangers in the Eastern Conference semifinals. Coach Dan Bylsma remains in charge until Shero’s replacement gets a chance to evaluate the organization.
“We share the disappointment of our fans that we have not had success in the playoffs over the past five seasons,” co-owners Mario Lemieux and Ron Burkle said in a joint statement. “We believe that new leadership in the general manager’s office will bring a new approach and new energy, and help us return to championship form.”
Assistant general manager Jason Botterill will serve as general manager on an interim basis. Penguins President and CEO David Morehouse called Botterill a candidate to take over and believes whomever the team brings in won’t need to make major changes on a club that won 51 games in 2013-14.
“It’s not a complete rebuild,” Morehouse said. “This is a team that has had a level of success. What we’re trying to do now is get from good to great.”
It’s a destination the Penguins reached only briefly during Shero’s tenure, spending most of the time in a murky middle ground that made them one of the league’s model franchises during the regular season but a symbol of disappointment once the calendar crept into May and beyond.
Pittsburgh won the franchise’s third Cup in 2009 but has failed to produce a bookend. Pittsburgh is just 4-5 in playoff series over the last five years after blowing a 3-1 series lead against New York.
Morehouse didn’t blame the 51-year-old Shero’s ouster on one specific misstep.
“This is a decision that’s been in the works for a long time since we’ve won the Cup,” Morehouse said. “We wanted to get back to the Stanley Cup finals and we haven’t and we’re going to make some changes.”
The Penguins brought Shero in before the 2006-07 season and tasked him with finding the right kind of players to complement Crosby and Malkin’s otherworldly offensive talent. It culminated on a giddy night in Detroit in 2009, when the Penguins edged the Red Wings 2-1 in Game 7 to earn the franchise’s third Cup, a run that included the crucial trade deadline acquisitions of forwards Chris Kunitz and Bill Guerin.
It was supposed to mark the beginning of a dynasty. Yet five seasons have come and gone with the Penguins in a familiar position – watching the final stages of the playoffs go on without them.
It hasn’t been for lack of trying. Shero remained aggressive in investing in a “win now” mode as the ensuing disappointments piled up. He enthusiastically said the Penguins were “all in” last year after trading for Jarome Iginla, Jussi Jokinen, Brenden Morrow and Douglas Murray.
The moves often created headlines but little else, and boatloads of regular-season victories and a sellout streak seven years and counting proved no longer good enough.
Whether Bylsma will be along for the ride remains unclear.
The affable, open-minded Michigan native was a revelation when the Penguins promoted him from their American Hockey League affiliate in the spring of 2009, hoping his optimism would help a loaded team break out of a midseason funk.
It worked brilliantly. Four months after taking the job, the former NHL nomad who spent nine seasons as a gritty fourth-line forward was raising the Cup in ecstasy. Considering Crosby and Malkin were both in their early 20s at the time, champagne toasts were expected.
A half-decade later, Bylsma is the winningest coach in franchise history with 252 wins but the wait for another Cup run continues. While Pittsburgh enjoyed nearly unparalleled success from October to April, including easily capturing the Metropolitan Division this year despite losing more than 500-man games to injury, the Penguins again struggled to adapt in the postseason.
Morehouse said the new general manager will determine whether Bylsma and the rest of the staff gets another shot. The 43-year-old Bylsma has two years remaining on his contract, the product of an extension he received last June as a vote of confidence from Shero following a four-game sweep at the hands of Boston in the Eastern Conference finals.
The deal came with a promise to adopt a more defensive-minded approach. The Penguins even brought in longtime NHL coach Jacques Martin as an assistant, an old-school yin to Bylsma’s new-school yang.
Crosby took the blame for the team’s underperformance as the Penguins cleared out their locker Thursday. A day later, the general manager ordered to put the league’s leading scorer in a position to keep Pittsburgh at the top was cleaning out his office.
Whoever ends up redecorating will have his tough choices to make. At the same time, he gets to start with Crosby and Malkin firmly entrenched. Both players are signed through the rest of the decade. There are worse places to start.
“A lot of teams would like to be where we are,” Morehouse said. “However we do have high expectations and we do want to get to them.”