Sunday, 15 February 2009

Changing Of The Guard

When a team is underachieving, it's tough to pinpoint one or two players to get rid of. Unless you're Dallas, and then you simply remove Sean Avery to return to playoff form. But as it stands right now, the Pittsburgh Penguins are a long five points from the playoffs, so something had to give. Despite there being reports that head coach Michel Therrien was speaking to each player individually about raising his game, he was fired today by the Penguins. In no uncertain terms, the results of this team now lie directly on the heads of the players. While Therrien got results last year, I still believe that he was the wrong guy for the job in Steeltown.

Look, Therrien did some very good things while coaching in Pittsburgh. He obviously juggled the Crosby-Malkin show as well as he could. While no one seems to be able to play on either wing with Sidney Crosby, Therrien found magic with Malkin-Sykora-Malone last season and rode that combination into the playoffs.

He struck gold by relieving Dany Sabourin of the starting duties after Marc-Andre Fleury fell to injury, and stuck with Ty Conklin who, for all intents and purposes, resurrected his NHL career. He got great contributions from youngsters like Kris Letang, Jordan Staal, and Tyler Kennedy than anyone may have expected.

But when it all boils down to it, was Therrien the reason for this team's success last season? I can't entirely say he was directly responsible for his team's success, but he did play a minor role in it, without doubt.

Putting Malkin, Sykora, and Malone together last season? Clearly, his decision. Otherwise, Malone could still be plugging away in Pittsburgh on the third line rather than cashing gigantic cheques in Tampa Bay.

The option to go with Conklin over Sabourin? Kind of his decision. He could have stuck with Sabourin through the growing pains while the inexpensive veteran watched from the bench. However, Pittsburgh was challenging for top spot in the conference, and Therrien opted to go for wins rather than developing a struggling young goaltender. The result? Six games into the Stanley Cup Final before their season ended.

But he wasn't pulling Conklin's strings. Defensively, the Penguins woke up and started helping their goaltender, and Conklin made all the saves he had to in order to give the Penguins a chance to win. And really? That's what your goaltender is supposed to do. Had Sabourin done that, Conklin might still be in Wilkes-Barre/Scranton with the Baby Penguins. Heck, Sabourin might still be in Steeltown rather than playing out the season in Springfield, Massachusetts.

How about Malkin's rise to the upper echelon of NHL stars? I'm going to go with my gut and say that Therrien played a small role in this. Motivating the sometimes lethargic Malkin was always a challenge, but the results last season are undeniable that Malkin has world-class talent. In knowing that, Therrien played Malkin. A lot. Malkin responded, and the Penguins went on a couple of crazy winning streaks.

Here's where the rub comes in, though. If it were any other coach, would the results be the same? If a taskmaster like Pat Burns was behind the bench, would the Penguins have advanced to the Stanley Cup Final?

A young team needs specific coaching in order for them to grow as a team. Players need a chance to develop while receiving quality technical coaching at the same time. Some players advance quickly, others slower, but everyone needs to be brought along in order for the team to do well. This season, it only appeared that Malkin and Crosby were playing to their potential - a possible sign that Therrien had been tuned out by a lot of players in the Penguins' dressing room.

All of that means nothing now as Dan Byslma takes over on an interim basis for the time being. The Penguins have 26 games to climb the Eastern Conference standings, and, after being trounced by the Toronto Maple Leafs on Saturday, the climb will be hard and long. But if Pittsburgh can weather this storm, they may be a darkhorse in the playoffs.

If they don't, however, the Pat-Quinn-to-Pittsburgh rumour mill will be running at full capacity.

Until next time, keep your sticks on the ice!


Tony said...

The Pens lost because Malkin refused to grow a playoff beard.

And whats a cheque?


Teebz said...

I don't think he can grow anything except the teenage angst moustache. LOL

A cheque is what the French accept in place of money. ;o)