Early playoff exits always prompt a lot of soul-searching, especially when those exits come on the heels of significant postseason expectations.
Watch for lots of hard questions to be asked in Vancouver, where the Presidents' Trophy winners are gone after five games. San Jose is gone, too, following two straight Western Conference finals appearances, with a meek five-game exit at the hands of the St. Louis Blues. Detroit was ousted in five games by Nashville and has failed to get out of the second round since losing to Pittsburgh in the 2009 Cup finals.
But nowhere will there be more focus on the kinds of changes that might be afoot than in Pittsburgh, where the Penguins entered the postseason as the sexy team to return to the Stanley Cup finals after a two-year absence.
Instead, in spite of having a healthy Sidney Crosby, regular-season scoring champion Evgeni Malkin and 40-goal scorer James Neal, the Penguins were handled with surprising ease by the Philadelphia Flyers in six games.
Here's a look at five issues confronting Pittsburgh GM Ray Shero.
1. The Goaltending
Let's not beat around the bush here. Marc-Andre Fleury, the playoff hero in 2009, when the Penguins upset Detroit in seven games to win their first Stanley Cup since 1992, was horrible. Apart from a star turn in Game 5, which the Penguins won 3-2, Fleury looked rattled and uncertain through most of this series. He was unable to build on his success in Game 5 in Sunday's series finale, allowing a goal 32 seconds into the game and then whiffing on a long shot by defenseman Erik Gustafsson that made the score 3-0. Here's the dilemma: Fleury is 27 and has three more years left on a deal that pays him a manageable $5 million annually. Is there anyone better who makes sense in terms of age and economics? Not likely. The bottom line is that unless Shero has serious misgivings about Fleury's mental makeup, and his ability to rebound from this disappointment, Fleury's not going anywhere. That doesn't mean the Pens shouldn't be on the lookout for young goaltending help to perhaps push Fleury. Maybe it's time to turn the backup duties over to youngster Brad Thiessen, who got a look when veteran backup Brent Johnson was hurt this season, to start grooming a successor to Fleury.
2. The Core
Should the Penguins blow it up? We saw the Flyers essentially deconstruct their lineup a year ago, trading captain Mike Richards and sniper Jeff Carter, and they might win a Cup this spring. But even if Shero was inclined to blow it up, how do you build a contender? The GMs' Blue Book on building a winner suggests you need a quality goaltender, stud defenseman and strength and skill down the middle. Well, the Penguins have the blueprint covered. The fact they haven't replicated their success of 2008 and 2009 doesn't mean the model is broken. Neither Crosby nor Malkin had a memorable series, even though they combined for 16 points and both were outshone by the work of Claude Giroux. That's what happens when you're two of the best players in the world: When you don't win, the tough questions get asked. But like Fleury, both have résumés that speak to their talent and character. Crosby, of course, was coming off concussion issues that disrupted the past two seasons, so we're prepared to cut him some slack there.
3. The Rearguards
If there was one glaring area of concern exposed by the Flyers' offensive onslaught (they averaged exactly five goals per game through six games), it was the Penguins' sloppy defensive play. Some of this is on Fleury, but there were horrific turnovers and poor decision-making throughout the team. If we accept Kris Letang as the centerpiece of the blue line moving forward, in spite of a very spotty series from him, it is clear the Pens need a defensive yin to Letang's offensive yang. The Washington Capitals have Karl Alzner to balance the skill of John Carlson. Jared Cowen is being groomed to work with offensive gem Erik Karlsson for years to come in Ottawa. Where is that young player for the Penguins? Paul Martin, whom we have always admired, endured a dreadful season and was injured for the latter part of this series. He has three years left on his deal at $5 million per year and has a limited no-trade clause. Can Shero find such a core defensive player via trade or does he have to hope there is one waiting in the wings in Wilkes-Barre (home of their AHL affiliate)? Bottom line is the blue-line corps as a whole was left significantly wanting when the dust cleared at the Wells Fargo Center on Sunday, and one imagines that will be an offseason priority.
4. The Trade
If Shero decides he needs to add a couple of significant pieces like an emerging young stay-at-home defenseman and maybe another solid two-way winger, then his biggest asset is Jordan Staal. The third member of the Big Three centers behind Crosby and Malkin, Staal can be an unrestricted free agent at the end of next season. Given his size, skill and all-world defensive game, Staal would command significant attention should he become available via trade. There are no restrictions on Staal's movement (he does not have a no-trade or no-move clause), so there is nothing to stop Shero from shopping the center (other than the belief that his team is ultimately better with those three players down the middle). Given what Carter and Richards returned to Philadelphia, a first-round pick, top prospect and a young everyday NHLer or combination thereof isn't out of the question, if that's the route Shero chooses to go. Further, pending the new salary cap at the end of the coming collective bargaining agreement negotiations, it might be economically advantageous to try to move Staal now, as Shero will have to come up with a new deal for Crosby, who can also become an unrestricted free agent next July. Malkin, for that matter, will be at the end of his current deal the year after.
5. The PK
The Penguins boasted the third-best penalty-killing unit in the NHL during the regular season and the Flyers ate their lunch with the man advantage in the first round, scoring 12 times on 23 opportunities. Some will criticize head coach Dan Bylsma for not being able to provide significant adjustments to stop the flood of Flyers power-play goals. It's a fair point, although by the end of this series we're inclined to view this as a kind of perfect storm. The skilled Flyers, led by playoff scoring leader Giroux, scored in every possible way with the man advantage and the Penguins seemed mentally bamboozled, rightfully afraid that every mistake was going to end up in their net. Which it did. But is that an indictment of the coaching acumen of the defending Jack Adams Award winner as coach of the year? No. And if we understand Bylsma's nature, he and his coaching staff will spend a long time this offseason looking very critically at the errors that helped undo what many expected would be a long postseason run. While coaching questions will be asked in places like Vancouver and San Jose, we're guessing in Pittsburgh that's a moot point. In the end, who better to coach this Penguins team than a man who has proved himself to be one of the top coaches in the game?