Kovacevic: Time ticking on Penguins' GM
Friday marks two full weeks since Mario Lemieux and Ron Burkle fired Ray Shero, and if you'll recall, Lemieux told me at the time the Penguins' front office probably would take “a couple weeks” to have a new GM in place.
Well, that clock's ticking, to put it kindly. Because this poor soul, whoever it might be, will have basically a month to set the franchise's course for, oh, the next half-decade or so.
Consider this a checklist for Mr. Mythical New GM:
√ FIRE THE COACH
It's crazier now than then, but Dan Bylsma still holds the title. This, as well as the fate of the rest of Bylsma's staff, will have to come first. As in the very first morning on the job.
√ HIRE A COACH
The pool of retreads isn't deep, but maybe that's for the better. These Penguins need a tough coach. Not a cement-head but someone with a personality to handle this locker room, whether it's the unique needs of Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin or the intimidating presences like Craig Adams. Bylsma couldn't. The new guy must.
Rick Tocchet, anyone?
I know he's interested, and we all know he's tough.
√ TRADE KRIS LETANG
I'm not kidding. Letang's limited no-trade clause kicks in July 1. After that, the Penguins will be hard-pressed to move his eight-year, $58 million contract, at least for fair value. I'll take Lemieux's word that the team “signed Kris to keep him,” but I'll also take his word that the new GM will make that call rather than the owners.
It's not just the trade return that would make a difference. The freed-up money would go a long way toward other concerns.
√ JAMES NEAL, TOO
I think a lot of Neal. Always have. And there's a good chance that, if traded, he'll run up another 40-goal season somewhere. But you have to give to get. And this is where you can give. The playoffs have laid bare that the Penguins have too many perimeter scorers rather than — repeat after me — grit-and-character types driving to the net. That's why their power play looks so pretty in the regular season but is reduced to a passing pentagon each spring.
Neal's 26, he's talented, and his remaining contract is attractive at four years, $20 million. He could bring back real quality.
√ SIGN MATT NISKANEN
This must get done. And after that, discuss with the coach sewing a letter on his sweater.
√ WISH BROOKS ORPIK AND JUSSI JOKINEN WELL
Orpik was one of the Penguins' most decorated defensemen, the all-time leader in games at the position. Jokinen was their only real playoff scoring threat. But they're unrestricted free agents like Niskanen, and they shouldn't be brought back. Orpik's place is best taken by a youngster, and Jokinen will be paid more than he's worth.
√ FIRE ALL THE SCOUTS
Wait, what's that?
The NHL Entry Draft is June 27-28?
OK, hold that. Work diligently with all the scouts who have mangled these past eight drafts, have everyone put forth their best effort at the table in Philadelphia … then fire everyone except those who recommended Olli Maatta.
√ HAVE A GREAT DRAFT
Yeah, good luck with that. Those scouts will be super-motivated to earn that severance pay.
√ PICK A NICE OFFICE
And by that I mean an office as far as possible from that of CEO David Morehouse. No disrespect to Morehouse, a superb businessman, but I don't like business overseeing sports decisions. I don't like it with Art Rooney II and the Steelers, nor with Frank Coonelly and the Pirates. The CEO should have input into major transactions such as multiyear extensions that can shake up the bottom line, but that's it.
√ CREATE A VISION
Between the GM and coach, there will be so much day-to-day work at hand it might happen without a broader scope in mind. That's dangerous.
What is the next generation of Pittsburgh Penguins?
How do they play?
What's the model?
The most successful versions of the Penguins have been supremely skilled. The franchise has been blessed with 15 of the past 26 NHL scoring champs. But there's also been a strong supporting cast of — repeat after me again — grit-and-character types. They were tough in protecting the stars but also in forging their own paths. They didn't just forecheck. They had Bob Errey, Troy Loney or Max Talbot skating through the far wall. They didn't just pokecheck. They had Ulf Samuelsson, Kevin Stevens and Orpik's legendary shift sending opponents into the next century.
So, Mr. Mythical New GM, paint a picture like that. Preferably with a single stroke.