Sunday, March 16, 2014

Where did Ray Shero go wrong?

By Artistry

There’s something different about this Penguins team. For the first time in the Sidney Crosby era, the arrow is teetering, and by season’s end, it may be pointing down. Crosby is 26. Evgeni Malkin is 27. They are great, generational talents, but particularly in today’s NHL, not even the best players can single-handedly carry a thin team to a championship. And whatever you can say in praise of these Penguins – despite their showing this weekend, they are still a juggernaut in the regular season even with like 8,000 man games lost – they are undeniably thin. As in, two injuries away from Taylor Pyatt being your number one left wing thin. As in, when this team loads up all of its big guns on one line, Lee Stempniak is on it thin.

One of the Mega-Powers, Apparently.
How did we get here? Why are we looking at team that likely has no more than a puncher’s chance against Boston or the Western Conference powers and will be hard pressed to beat a team like the Flyers in a first round playoff matchup? Mike Colligan suggested on our recent podcast that the Penguins view this as some sort of transition year.  If indeed Ray Shero and the management team do take that view, it sounds to us like an after-the-fact rationalization for constructing a subpar roster.  And that is exactly what the Penguins have done. No team with Crosby and their Malkin in their prime should even contemplate a transition year, yet here the Pens are, still with major holes in their lineup.

Let's examine where Shero made a wrong turn.

We'll begin by addressing a popular theory -- that the Penguins have drafted poorly. Not really. The Pensblog took a fairly comprehensive look at the Penguins drafts under Ray Shero and concluded that they’ve been a major disappointment. But to fully understand how the Penguins have fared at the draft table, you can't look at their drafts in a vacuum. You need to compare them with similarly situated teams, and those that regularly draft in the 20-30 range in the first round are lucky to find one guy per draft who makes his way onto the roster.

Take the gold standard: Mike Holland and the Detroit Red Wings. You know how many players the Wings have drafted during Shero’s 2006-2013 tenure who have had more than a cup of coffee in the NHL?

Gustav Nyquist
Tomas Tatar
Brendan Smith
Joakim Andersson

Joakim? Is that you?
That’s it. Eight drafts. That’s your whole list. Other consistently successful teams haven’t been much better at turning up NHL players. In the three years during that same span that the Chicago Blackhawks drafted in the 20-30 range in the first round, here's what the Stanley Cup champions have to show for themselves: Brandon Pirri and Marcus Kruger. I'll wait for you to finish your slow clap. (the Blackhawks have made some unbelievable value picks in other drafts, including Brandon Saad at no. 43 in 2011, but they are an exceptional case).

With that bit of perspective, now look at who the Penguins have drafted under Shero, ignoring his two picks in the top 10 (Jordan Staal and Derrick Pouliot) and focusing solely on players taken with the 20th pick or later:

Olli Maatta
Beau Bennett
Simon Despres
Robert Bortuzzo
Jake Muzzin
Dustin Jeffrey
Brian Strait

There are a number of other names you know, guys who never made it but were flipped in deals for actual NHL players (Angelo Esposito, Luca Caputi, Ben Hanowski, Joe Morrow, etc.). Here's the bottom line: based on the quality of draft picks they've had, Ray Shero's scouts have done about as well as can be expected and maybe better. We'll have to see how players like Scott Harrington and Philip Samuelsson and Tristan Jarry turn out.

If you want to build your team through the draft, you better have picks in the top 10 and hit on those picks. See, for example, Boston (Kessel, Seguin, Doug Hamilton). This isn’t rocket science.

In our view, the real issue is Shero's asset management over the last calendar year. It's been poor. Faced with a diminishing salary cap in the summer of 2013, Shero came to a fork in the road. Would he commit to aging but productive veterans or try to retool the roster by bringing in some new blood, particularly young wingers with size and speed? Would he let Pascal Dupuis walk? Would he trade Chris Kunitz, who still had a year left on his deal at a very attractive number? Would he trade Norris Trophy finalist Kris Letang for a bundle of assets, including a young top 6 forward and a top prospect? Would he finally let Craig Adams go?

Nope.
We were unequivocal about our feelings at the time. Before the Letang extension, we proposed a series of trades seeking what at the time were fairly realistic returns. The idea was to help the Penguins get younger and deeper. We offered Letang for a package centered around James Van Reimsdyk right before the big winger's breakout season. We opined on sending Letang to the wings for Gustav Nyqvist and others. We even tossed out a multi-team trade that would have netted the Pens Cam Fowler, John Gibson, Chris Stewart, and the no. 7 pick in the draft. Even though we were being deliberately ridiculous, it even kind of made sense for all the teams involved. When Letang re-signed, we still kept pushing the same theme: time to retool. Time to get some fresh bodies to support the franchise players.

Of Kunitz and Dupuis, we wrote:

"Look, if you have two guys you love of comparable value -- and who are both important complementary but not core players -- looking for deals in the $4 million a year range that will take them through the age of 38, you need to pick one and let the other go. As we've said repeatedly, aging all-star teams don't win in today's NHL. The Pens need an infusion of youthful swagger."

When the Pens followed up the Kunitz and Dupuis deals by signing Rob Scuderi and Craig Adams, we wrote this:

"It's as easy as can be to make the case for all of these moves, but it doesn't change the fact that the Pens already tried and failed to win the Cup with an aging all-star team. It also does nothing to address the glaring holes in the bottom 6, where Matt Cooke, Brenden Morrow, Jarome Iginla, and Tyler Kennedy used to reside. Now we're looking at Jokinen, Glass, Vitale, Dustin Jeffrey, and Adams, with no legitimate depth beyond them. Anybody think Brandon Sutter is going to carry this group? Anyone? This is the first time I can recall that there is no realistic chance for any minor league forward prospect to make the team out of camp. Who's going to do it? You Dom Uher? You Tom Kuehnhackl? There needs to be a youth infusion, and the bet here is it's still pending."

You might even say we were ahead of the curve on the whole "The bottom 6 is terrible" thing. The youth infusion never came. The reinforcements never arrived. Instead, Shero tried to plug holes with retreads like 32-year-old Taylor Pyatt. We're not telling you that a window may be closing because the Penguins failed to follow our advice. We're just a couple of oddly prescient, charismatic guys with a highly readable blog. What we're saying is this: there's an old maxim about hockey being a young man's game. Where did Ray Shero go wrong? He forgot.

11 comments:

  1. While I agree with this post in general (very strongly, in fact), I can't get today's game out of my head. The Penguins didn't show up today. That's not Shero's fault. It's down to coaching and team leadership. They were playing like my old high school team out there today (FYI, my high school team won two games over three seasons). Nobody looked like they cared- even the little scrums were halfhearted. Not sure if the Pens have given up on the playoffs or if the conflicting emotions after the Olympic break are playing into this, but it's awful to watch. I feel incredibly lame suggesting the Olympics have anything to do with what's going on, however it's all that comes to mind. Something's missing now that was there before, and I don't mean specific guys out due to injury. Team spirit, maybe? Cheesy to say, but that's as close as my frustration will allow me to get at the moment. Mostly I want to storm the locker room with a scathing and inspiration speech that will light a fire in these guys.

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    1. I left my response to the next comment before I read this. Pretty perfect summary here.

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  2. I think you guys made a great point on the podcast a few weeks back about how if Bylsma got fired, there'd be 25 teams on the phone w/his agent immediately, and I don't deny it. Also, the grass is always greener (see Boudreau, Bruce)...but all that said, why do we think that Bylsma is the right coach for this team? Inexplicable line pairings, refusal to play our lower-end guys with some trade value to pretend that we like them (hey, good to see you, Simon!), and a general lack of focus and discipline from top to bottom: how many Neal/Letang/Malkin penalties do we need before we realize that this ain't working? Again, I realize that there's very little at this point that we can do given that we lack the personnel to make a real playoff push, but at least some of that buck has to stop with the coach.

    Also, I really like Jayson Megna, despite the fact that he has a boyband first name and totally screwed the pooch on that missed open net.

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    1. There are some recurring issues that absolutely raise a red flag about Bylsma, most notably, the seeming mental-softness of this team. Coming off a terrible game Saturday, the Pens followed it up with maybe their worst period of the season on Sunday. Inexcusable. How much of that is on DB, or Crosby (the C), or a roster rounded out with the stiffest of the stiffs, I don't know. I'm not in the locker room.

      Though the roster construction is incredibly flawed, as Artistry pointed out, that certainly isn't the sole reason they got humiliated twice in 24 hours by their #1 rival. Anyone who watches this team on a nightly basis can see that there's something missing in the team's spirit. That sounds like the worst of the worst announcer cliches, but it's still true.

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    2. Dan Bylsma's record as a head coach (including playoffs) is 450 - 141 - 29, with two (soon to be three) division titles and a Stanley Cup championship.

      It's unclear what you would have had him do differently given the circumstances, and like everyone who questions Bylsma's leadership there's never a productive suggestion that follows.

      What about the success of Olli Maatta? Does he not deserve credit for successfully coaching a 19 year-old rookie being forced into a top-two role? James Neal has evolved into a point per game player since coming over from Dallas. Take a look at Chris Kunitz' stats when he was in Anaheim and compare them to the player he has become under Dan Byslma. Same with Pascal Dupuis.

      Or is it wrong to give credit to Bylsma for the success of these players because they play with Crosby and Malkin as their centers? And how come we never give credit to Bylsma for effectively coaching those centers? It might seem like a breeze coaching the best in the world, but I'm willing to bet it takes a lot more effort than Bylsma lets on.

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    3. No one is saying he's a bad coach or that he should be fired. Even if we felt that way, it's incredibly premature, given that the season isn't over and it wouldn't be stunning if the Pens made a run to the finals. But you can't just look at the regular season record to justify the status quo. Maybe the lack of better alternatives, as you astutely noted, is as good of a reason as any for the Pens to stick with DB.

      All the stuff you mentioned is part of what would go in the "pro" circle on the Bylsma Venn-diagram. But there's some negative stuff, too. It all has to be taken into account.

      Regarding coaching Crosby and Malkin ... I'll point out that Crosby had his highest scoring season under Therrien, and Malkin's highest scoring season was the year MT got fired late in the season. So it's not like Bylsma is getting something out of those two guys that another coach couldn't get. The truth is that coaching probably has very little to do with when Sid and Geno had their best years -- it has much more to do with the conclusion of this post that hockey is a young man's game.

      The big picture here is that Shero has elected to maintain his core -- a core that is aging or, even if still relatively young, is at risk of becoming stale. Bylsma is part of that core. So if it turns out that this team really has plateaued, Bylsma would be as much of a reason why as anyone else.

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    4. Indeed, Finesse. All fine points, and let me be clear that I was specifically replying to the comment of "Anonymous" and hadn't actually seen your reply to him/her before publishing my remark.

      (Although I would pick a nit regarding Sid and Geno's production; both have dealt with significant injuries while playing for Bylsma, so I think evaluating their production in terms of PPG rather than aggregate totals is the best course of action. From that metric, Geno had one truly fantastic season with Bylsma while being slightly more successful with Therrien, and Sid has had his best years with Bylsma, but ultimately the man is a freak so who knows if any of this even matters.)

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  3. I said last week that it had been a long time since I saw this team look like it was having fun - that everything looks like work. That they look exhausted.

    But honestly - would any team be able to overcome this? 500 man games lost by the end of the year. Without 3 top-6 wingers and the team's top-2 defensemen. Has any team with this sort of injury situation in recent year done anything more than barely make the playoffs? I'm truly interested in anyone can think of an example.

    I tried to look for numbers for the last few years: Last year, of the teams over 200 man games, Det and Ott just scraped into the playoffs. The year before that, of the 10 teams over 300, only the Pens and Blues made the playoffs (Pens were #5 that year with 355). In 10-11, 11 teams were over 300 man games. 5 made the playoffs (including the Pens) - but none in the top-5 did. I'm not sure if these numbers include healthy scratches (difficult to find good data) - but the only teams who have come close to the number the Pens have this year was Avs and NYI in 10-11, Mont and Jackets in 11-12. Definitely not playoff teams.

    Even if you say the boys should suck it up, there's no way it doesn't take an emotional toll. And more to the point - is it even worth analyzing anymore? Is there any way to make a fair judgment about coaching or GMing when the Pens have never come close to playing with a full roster? No team can make up with depth this number of injuries. None. Not and do any better than this team has done - which is running away with their (admittedly terrible) division.

    I get the debate about trading Tanger for depth. That's really, bottom line, what you are primarily condemning Shero for. Not trading away the number of picks he has for rentals. Not for refusing to draft forwards. But I had my say: I've watched this team's offense decline precipitously every time he's been out. Sid and Geno's offense declines precipitously when he's out (I wish I had numbers; I want to say it's like 0.5 g/g for the team). And until I see a defenseman who can get the puck to Sid and Geno the way Tanger does, I still think Shero made the right choice. Paul Martin will only be here for one more year, and Ollie is the only other competent puck-mover the Pens have. You need Tanger to get the best out of 87 and 71. Period. And no absence in the roster has impacted the team more than his. The Pens cannot get the puck up the ice cleanly, and no trade for JVR would fix that. (And if you think that anyone could pry John Gibson or Cam Fowler out of the Ducks hands, you're crazy.) Have the Flyers really benefited from their constant compulsion for mega-trades?

    I do get the point about the aging roster. Scuds was a bad decision. Kunie and Duper? Well - I suspect that's on 87. Sid's about consistency and comfort, and those are his guys. Otherwise, it would have been the FA scrap heap. I'm not saying there haven't been mistakes - I think there have. I think Shero traded too many picks. I think the D and F balance in the draft should have been more even. I think there have been mistakes in FA. And I think, above all, that this team and it's system have become too predictable. But keeping 58 wasn't a mistake, and it's impossible to judge the impact or extent of these mistakes when we are looking at an exhausted team with half its roster out.

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    1. For the record, the crazy Letang trade also had the Pens giving up Kunitz.

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    2. Also for the recored, these trades were proposed last summer. If you think Gibson and Fowler were untouchable then with a 26-year-old Norris Trophy finalist and a second line center coming the other way, you're crazy.

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