Kovacevic: Lemieux, Burkle have right focus
Let's dispense with this right up front: Dan Bylsma isn't coming back to coach the Penguins.
Now of course, his name never came up in the team's clumsy, confounding news conference Friday, the one in which Ray Shero was fired and we then waited awkwardly for the other shoe that never dropped. There already was an element of weirdness that the announcement wasn't being made by owners Mario Lemieux and Ron Burkle but by CEO David Morehouse, Shero's hierarchical equal. And it reached another level when one wiseacre actually had to ask whether, in fact, Bylsma was being fired.
The answer from Morehouse was no different than those from Lemieux and Burkle an hour later, when they and I met in the owners' voluminous office across the Consol Energy Center hall from the news conference they just dodged.
“Dan's still the coach,” Lemieux replied to my first question, and he kept a straight face.
But no, really, Dan isn't still the coach. And I'll tell you why: It's because when Lemieux and Burkle arrived at their decision to fire Shero, they did so not only because of lousy drafts and an old, overpaid, soft roster, but also because — and let's be clear on this — the coach was every bit on board.
When Burkle made public it was Lemieux who ordered the addition of Jacques Martin to the staff last summer “to bring another coach in and see if we could be more flexible, try to adapt between how we were playing in the regular season and in the playoffs,” he wasn't exactly endorsing the head coach.
When Lemieux repeatedly stated the Penguins were lacking “grit and character,” he once took the extra step to add, “even on special teams.” The power play, he meant. Shooting the puck. Crashing the net. That's on the coach.
When I asked how the Penguins could go all season without giving soon-to-be-ancient defense prospect Simon Despres a long look, Lemieux replied, “Yeah.” Burkle chimed in, “Agree with that 100 percent.”
When Burkle described being convinced last summer by Shero to keep Bylsma, he recalled: “If you look back at that today, in some ways, I wish we hadn't made that bet. If we're disappointed, it's that we lost a year to the change that we should have made already.”
Yeah, that coach isn't coming back.
And although Burkle and Lemieux were adamant that they'll leave the new GM to his own work, as they obviously did with Shero, they also made no secret that this mythical man's hiring will come with a multipronged mandate:
• Faster. “Look at Montreal, the way they're built,” Lemieux said. “They have smaller forwards, but they're all speedy, and they've got grit, and they've got character. That's probably what we'd like to have. I think that's where the league is going now.”
• Younger. This time, Lemieux pointed to Columbus, the first-round opponent with a bright future: “They had that nice mix of older and younger players that you need in the playoffs. A lot of fresh legs.”
• Tougher. Not fighting or cheap, Lemieux stressed. But tough enough to compete. Tough enough to spare Sidney Crosby the regular beatings, a language no one understands better than No. 66. “I think Sid would be the first to say he was disappointed in the way he played,” Lemieux said. “I think we all saw that. We're disappointed, as well. But it's up to us to surround him with the players he needs to be successful.”
• Cheaper. Yes, really. Even as Lemieux bluntly said “we signed Kris Letang to keep him” in advance of the final summer before a no-trade clause cements a $58 million commitment, both owners spoke of being more prudent. “We fell into spending to the cap just because it was there,” Burkle said. They won't keep the new GM from hitting the cap, but they'd like to see more players signed to long-term deals at younger ages. Lemieux mentioned Matt Niskanen as an example of such an opportunity that was wasted. Niskanen, coming off a career year, is eligible for free agency this summer.
• Grittier and more character-y. Sorry. They said it so many times, I just had to toss it in again.
I didn't like everything I saw and heard Friday. I'm not wild about Bylsma and his coaches possibly being strung along, though Lemieux and Burkle emphatically assured me they wouldn't stop anyone from pursuing another opportunity. Also, Lemieux and Burkle absolutely should have faced the news conference, and Burkle's explanation that “it's neither one of our styles” because both rarely do interviews wasn't close to acceptable. If that were Art Rooney II or Bob Nutting, Pittsburgh would pitch a fit.
Let's hope that one or both man up when the new GM is introduced. The fans, especially those paying customers whom Burkle praised for “great support,” deserve equal accountability.
For now, this broader accountability and the right focus for the franchise's future will do.