Next Pens GM faces big challenge

That ominous metallic sound you heard echoing out of the Steel City late Friday morning was that of the hammer hitting the organizational anvil for the Pittsburgh Penguins.

It was a sound most had been expecting from the moment the Penguins could not find the tying goal in Game 7 against the New York Rangers on Tuesday night and fell from the playoffs once again, wondering how so much talent could produce so little.

On Friday, part of that wonderment was crystallized into reality when ownership decided that seismic change was needed and cut ties with former general manager of the year Ray Shero.

Coach Dan Bylsma remains, technically, as the team's head coach while the team seeks out a new GM.

But, as was the case in Vancouver when Trevor Linden took over as president of hockey operations and waited before firing coach John Tortorella, it is all but a given that Bylsma will be cut loose.

Is there a GM anywhere who would come into this situation and retain Bylsma, given that Shero paid a heavy price, at least in part, for choosing a year ago to keep Bylsma behind the bench after the Penguins were swept by the Boston Bruins in the Eastern Conference finals?

The short answer: no.

In that sense, it is more than a little passive-aggressive from ownership's side to keep Bylsma twisting in the wind, especially given that he almost certainly would be hired immediately if he were a free agent, what with coaching openings in Florida, Carolina, Vancouver and Washington.

The fact Bylsma might not hit the market until after the draft does him a great disservice. The team owes him better than this.

And surely the plan isn't to make Bylsma a lame-duck coach for another year while the Penguins wait for Mike Babcock's contract to run out in Detroit so they can hire the two-time Olympic gold medal-winning coach of Team Canada? How unseemly would that be?

Surely, the organization isn't prepared to waste another season in the prime of captain Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin while hoping it can nab the guy who beat the Penguins in the 2008 Stanley Cup finals.

As for Shero, president David Morehouse said Friday that Shero had "complete autonomy" to build the team as he saw fit.

"He had free rein," Morehouse said.

Sounds like ownership trying to distance itself from some of the mess the team finds itself in after annual attempts to bring in pieces to another Stanley Cup puzzle fell short.

Did Shero really acquire Jarome Iginla, Brenden Morrow, Douglas Murray and Jussi Jokinen at last year's deadline without getting ownership's blessing? Come on.

And, going back further, did ownership not push Shero to grab Marian Hossa (and Pascal Dupuis) from Atlanta? Or Bill Guerin?

Maybe it's semantics, but the bottom line is that the pressure and desire to keep an elite team at the top of the mountain often pushes a team into salary-cap issues and depletes a team's depth in terms of draft picks and prospects.

The Penguins are no different.

Certainly there have been lots of questions about the team's depth and salary-cap situation. And those issues, along with the coaching decision, undoubtedly combined to hasten Shero's departure, as well.

Still, the criticism of Shero is only partially fair.

Look at the team's depth and potential along the blue line, starting with Olli Maatta, who jumped from junior and attracted Calder Trophy interest for his solid play, to Brian Dumoulin and Derrick Pouliot, and you've got a pretty good core of young defensemen for the future. Throw in 6-foot-4 Simon Despres, whom a new coach might take advantage of because of his size and skill, and there's another.

Do the Penguins have issues with contracts? Sure.

The decision to extend Kris Letang after last year's defensive meltdown was questionable, although Letang played very well after a rocky start to this spring's run. Still, the $7.25 million cap hit over the life of an eight-year extension now seems excessive. The Rob Scuderi deal that sees him under contract for three more years at a $3.375 million annual cap hit is a problem, as well.

Those deals will make it difficult to retain Matt Niskanen, who has emerged as the team's steadiest defender and who will be an unrestricted free agent in July. He would like to stay, but it's hard to see that happening without the Penguins exercising a compliance buyout to make room.

As the Pens began to lose their grip on the Rangers series, the lack of depth up front became apparent. Beau Bennett has not progressed. Will a new coach help get this talented forward on track again? Brian Gibbons has shown he has the speed to be an NHL player, but there isn't a series of young forwards emerging, as is the case with the Chicago Blackhawks or Los Angeles Kings, to name two recent Cup winners.

Those are now issues that will confront someone new.

Perhaps assistant GM Jason Botterill will get a shot, although if this ultimately is a clean sweep, does Botterill represent someone with enough distance from the previous regime to get the job done, or does his knowledge of the farm team put him in good stead? It's clear the team trusts his judgment, as Morehouse said Friday that Botterill is a candidate for the job and could manage the team through the draft if a new GM isn't in place by late June.

Tim Burke, the highly regarded director of scouting for the San Jose Sharks, is going to get a GM job somewhere sometime soon. Claude Loiselle, an assistant GM in Toronto, is also ready. Tom Kurvers, part of USA Hockey's management team at the ongoing world championship, is an intriguing figure, as well.

And what of Crosby's agent, Pat Brisson, whose name surfaced Friday, as well? Interesting, although the fact Brisson's partner, J.B. Barry, represents Malkin suggests it might be a tad complicated. Still, Brisson is a sharp hockey mind, and there's no team he knows better than the Penguins.

Whoever ultimately takes over as GM must resolve first what is going on with captain Crosby. His lack of productivity this spring and his apparent disconnect with Bylsma is something that has to be a prime consideration in how the team evolves. Fair or not -- and how many times has this been a discussion point with the Washington Capitals and their star captain, Alexander Ovechkin? -- Crosby is the team's most important asset.

If things went awry, the GM must figure out why, and those answers must be part of the consideration, assuming there is going to be a coaching search in the coming weeks.

In short, this first part is the easy part for the Penguins. Ownership was upset, disappointed and decided to clear the decks.

And so the pressure now falls to Mario Lemieux, principal owner Ron Burkle and Morehouse to stop what has become a pattern of annual underachievement and disappointment.

It's this part of the equation that will at some point define this team and its future.