Monday, June 10, 2013

Dan Bylsma's awkward embrace of Fleury: What's going on here?

By Finesse (follow me on Twitter)

[Click here for our podcast and post recapping the end of the Pens' season]

The landscape around the Pens is a real mess right now.

It's about to get real weird.
Dan Bylsma held a press conference yesterday and talked confidently about Marc-Andre Fleury in an exchange that was either sanctioned by the Pens' top brass or was an outright act of insubordination.

Said Bylsma, per the Post-Gazette:
"Marc-Andre Fleury is our No. 1 goalie."
"He's the No. 1 goalie for this franchise, and he will be going forward."
"Marc-Andre Fleury is a guy who's going to come back to our team [next season] and he's going to be the No. 1 goalie. He's going to be our franchise goalie, this franchise's goalie.  Marc-Andre Fleury is going to go back in net. He's going to take the net. He's going to be the No. 1 goalie. He's going to play great. There's no question about that. And he's going to win a lot of hockey games for this team next season. He'll have that opportunity in the playoffs again when this team gets there."
And regarding Tomas Vokoun:
"Tomas, I don't think, is in any different boat than he was when he came in here for last season. He's a guy who makes our goaltending tandem a very good one. He's going to play games for us, big games for us. He came in and did for us exactly what we signed him for last year. Next year, he's not going to get that opportunity [to become the starter] because Marc-Andre Fleury's going to be in net winning hockey games."
What the hell?  Read on for our quick thoughts...

Dejan Kovacevic rightly noted the absurdity of Bylsma's position, both on the substance of what he said and on the mere fact that he said it given that Bylsma is, you know, not the general manager.

But Ron Cook, being Ron Cook, decided to come out in full-throated support of Bylsma, suggesting that the Pens give him an extension this summer because it wasn't Bylsma's fault the Pens lost and hockey coaches too often get a raw deal.

It's a lot to digest on this Monday morning, so let us make just two quick points:

1) Even putting aside the highly questionable merits of Bylsma guaranteeing Fleury the top goalie spot next season (something we will discuss at length in a podcast later this week), we don't want Fleury to come back next season for selfish reasons.  We'll spend 82 games waiting for the implosion.  When Flower gets some 18-save shutout against Tampa over Thanksgiving weekend next season, are we supposed to think that means everything will be OK come late April?  He feels like a ticking time-bomb.  A $5 million suicide vest.

2) We're still sorting through our own thoughts on whether the Pens should retain Bylsma, but we're not operating on the faulty assumption that the following two statements are mutually exclusive: Dan Bylsma is a good coach, and the Pens need to fire him.  Both can be true.  There is no shortage of candidates for blame for the Pens' four straight playoff disappointments, but debating the relative blameworthiness of the coach, players, and management doesn't address the only question that matters: How do the Pens ensure that the next four playoffs don't end the same way?

As we wrote about last week, NHL coaches have a shelf-life and Dan Bylsma will start next season already at double the average tenure of Stanley Cup winning coaches since 1990.  Maybe he's outlived his utility in Pittsburgh.  Or maybe not.  But either way, yesterday certainly didn't help.


  1. This all feels like a disaster. Seems like there is a mess behind the scenes. This all can't be pleasing the big guy...

  2. I have to confess that I didn't even watch Game 4. I was traveling for work, met up with some old friends, and was so hammered that I didn't even remember to check the score until there was about 4 min. left. (A brilliant plan on my part: I've never handled a playoff elimination so well.) When I did finally check, I was utterly confident the score would stay 1-0. I feel this pretty much sums up the season.

    As far as what's next:

    1) First, organizations don't voluntarily overhaul their team after a loss in the conference finals. This isn't any team - and this isn't the first year it has disappointed - but it's worth acknowledging the initial responses we're getting right now are nothing but the melodramatic pronouncements of fans and media a bit too close. I was talking to a Rangers fan over the weekend, and he said, "Well, at least you know who your coach will be next year." I said that I thought DB was likely gone. His response: "I wish you all wouldn't be so quick to press the panic button. Try going 20 years." I still think Bylsma should and will go - but it did put a bit of perspective on the situation.

    2) Bylsma will likely be the sacrificial lamb for the season. I do think that teams who have the same coach for long stretches in hockey become too predictable in a way that they don't in other sports. The boys need to reinvent their identity a bit. Also - my gut says Bylsma's systems are too complicated. This seems completely contradictory with their predictability - but they don't seem to have that simple game to fall back on when things start to go awry. When things start to go wrong - all hell breaks loose: they have no means of stabilizing things. This is likely partly mental - the extraordinary pressure this team was under - but perhaps also systematic.

    3) I get the lack of confidence in Fleury. But let's remember: Fleury can't be blamed for a loss in a series he didn't play in. They scored 2 goals in 4 games, but only gave up 3 in the last 8 periods of the season. While they do have goaltending decisions to make - there are clearly other underlying issues.

    To say that Fleury is like a "suicide vest" is beyond melodramatic. This feels to me like the "panic button" move. This is the move that makes you the Philadelphia Flyers. How many seasons have the Flyers pissed away trying to find someone to play net? The Flyers. Goaltending. Seriously - reflect on that.

    All the other options are AT LEAST as uncertain. Fleury has been a stable regular season goalie, regardless of his playoff performances. Drop him and the replacement doesn't pan out - and you don't make the playoffs (especially with the new playoff format). This is exactly the type of hasty, extreme, Holmgrenesque move that sets a franchise back years. I'm sorry, but there's a better chance (even if it isn't a particularly good chance) that Fleury gets his shit together than some FA goalie plucked up in desperation takes the team on a deep playoff run. How often (really name some specific circumstances) has this worked? Then name me the times it has failed. After all, there's only about 15 NHL teams unhappy with their goaltending. The other 15 drafted a franchise goalie.

    I'm not saying Fleury is the guy. I'm saying a smart manager is patient, watches to see how Zatkoff and Hartzell develop - and then makes a move when the time is right over the course of the next couple of years.

    1. You certainly didn't miss much by missing Game 4.

      Regarding Fleury, how much more patience can the Pens have in him? It's 4 straight years of bad -- sometimes spectacularly bad -- playoffs. And it's not like he's been so great in the regular season. His GAA and SV% rankings the past 5 years:

      2012-13: 15th, 16th
      2011-12: 12th, 26th
      2010-11: 8th, 13th
      2009-10: 22nd, 31st
      2008-09: 23rd, 21st

      He's been fine in the regular season, but barely better than average, if that.

      And even if you say level of performance is fine for this team, do we really need to pay $5 million for it? Can we really not find someone who can perform in that ballpark for less money so that we can use the money to get better players to help the goalie? Maybe other options are as uncertain as you say -- but we don't need to spend $5 million for uncertainty when we could get it for $3 million.

      And don't forget that Vokoun is signed through next season, too. Obviously he's not the long term answer, but he was good enough to save the first round, and generally played well enough to get the team to the Finals if anyone else would have showed up. He's had a better save percentage than Fleury in each of the past 5 years. I'm not comfortable at all giving Vokoun 60+ games, but that's because of durability more than anything. If the Pens can find a guy to play 35-40 games so that Vokouon can stay fresh, will we really be worse off going into the playoffs next season?

    2. "Can we really not find someone who can perform in that ballpark for less money so that we can use the money to get better players to help the goalie?"

      But this is exactly what I'm questioning. No - I'm not at all sure we can. In fact, I suspect we can't. We disagree on this point, which is why we disagree. If I thought this was the case, then I might say dumping Flower is the way to go. But the top ten FAs according to Cap Geek: Backstrom, Thomas, Khabibulin, Nabokov, Smith, Mason, Theodore, Garon, Labarbara, and Emery. I don't even recognize most below those 10. I know you've mentioned Emery before. Sorry - that just doesn't inspire any more confidence in me than MAF, even if he did have a solid year in Chicago behind one of the league's best defenses (not ours).

  3. If this decision is legit, there are several people in the Penguins organization who have made Kris Letang look like a genius.