Open Letter To Mario Lemieux
Dear M. Magnifique,
I note that you watched (generally with a look of disgust on your face) the performance of your beloved Penguins against the Boston Bruins in the Eastern Conference Finals. I did too, save for the final two periods of the Game 2 debacle that I couldn’t even bear to watch. And I have seen the same thing that you have—a team that seemingly has no identity. The question you must ask yourself is, “why.” As with any other complicated situation, there is likely not one easy answer. Maybe it’s a little bit of each of the following.
Let’s start at the top. To do so, you only need a mirror. As a player, you were known for enjoying playing for coaches (Eddie Johnston comes to mind) who ran the team like a country club. Coaches like EJ were always overly easy on the players. And those coaches always had early playoff exits. You must ask yourself if, at your behest, this organization has become TOO player-friendly. Are you no longer demanding the excellence of your subordinates that you always demanded of yourself? Is there accountability top to bottom? And I mean true accountability, where if you fail often enough, you will not be around to fail one more time. Are you holding the feet of your immediate subordinates to the fire? You must also ask yourself (and perhaps Mr. Burkle) if you are content to sell out CONSOL every night, rake in the dough, make a few bucks from the playoffs, and call it a successful season. If the answer to that is yes, you can stop reading here, because nothing else really matters.
The next possible answer to the question is one of those subordinates—Rejean Shero. Since you hired him after dismissing the much-maligned Craig Patrick, has he done enough to strengthen this organization? He inherited Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin, Marc-Andre Fleury, Kris Letang, and, essentially, Jordan Staal (who was an incorrect pick, no less). He took the organization to the heights in 2009, but the team has stagnated since then. Is the “two-superstar model” obsolete? Did his deadline frenzy actually worsen the team’s chances at a Cup? Has Mr. Shero done enough to keep his job?
Speaking of keeping jobs, let’s turn to Dan Bylsma. He remains Mr. Shero’s only coaching hire. When he came on board in 2009, he did a brilliant job turning player attitudes around after they had been soured by Michel Therrien. He combined his aggressive system with Mr. Therrien’s boring defensive system and took the team to a Stanley Cup. This hybrid system, along with Mr. Bylsma’s upbeat personality, worked perfectly. But as the years have gone on and the system became solely Mr. Bylsma’s, the playoff disappointments have only mounted. Yes, we can dismiss 2011, when both your star centers missed the playoffs. But what about the other three years? In each case, your team lost to a team presumed to be inferior. Last year, a total breakdown in discipline was the cause. This year, the inability of the staff to find a way through Boston’s stifling defense did it. That’s a defense that cannot be THAT impenetrable—Toronto certainly found a way to score on it. But your coaches seem totally befuddled. Why is that? Are they too married to “Pittsburgh penguin Ice Hockey” to adapt to each situation? Is there not enough accountability on the ice and in the locker room? Is that lack of accountability for stupid mistakes the root cause of something like Joe Vitale’s roughing penalty in Game 3?
And finally, on the subject of accountability, what about the players themselves? Is the core leadership simply not there? Why do the playoffs annually expose this team to be less than the sum of its parts? Is there friction in the locker room? Do the players simply not mesh? Your top three forwards and your top offensive defenseman did not register a single point in this series. Not a single point. None. Zero. Zip. Zilch. Nada. Let that sink in then, please, go ask them the hard question of why this is happening. Is it the players choking under pressure yet again? Is it the system they play that seems ideally suited for the regular season, but is a disaster in the playoffs? Are the coaches not putting them in a position to succeed? Are the players too enamored with making highlight plays to try to score some dirty goals?
M. Lemieux, this is going to be a long offseason. You’d best get started right now searching for answers. Do not let a single member of this organization leave town for the summer before grilling each and every one of them for the answers to these questions. It will go a long way toward putting this franchise back on the right track.