(Related Press Release: KEHOE, MULLEN TO COACH WILKES-BARRE/SCRANTON PENGUINS ON INTERIM BASIS)
Michel Therrien hopes to be a catalyst for the Pittsburgh Penguins.
Therrien, who replaced head coach Eddie Olczyk behind the bench on Thursday, brought immediate change even before the squad took the ice for practice.
“The attitude, those were the first words I addressed with the team before we went out on the ice. Attitude is a big part of any hockey player or team. We need to have a winning attitude,” Therrien said. “We need to do what winners do to win some hockey games. It’s tough to win hockey games. There’s a price to pay. It’s going to be one of my duties to makes sure those guys pay that price to win hockey games and reward the guys who want to be recognized as winners.”
With his intense winning desire and no-nonssense demeanor, Therrien has found success throughout his career, especially the past two and a half seasons with the Penguins’ top minor-league affiliate in Wilkes-Barre/Scranton. The Baby Penguins were 21-1-2-1 with 45 points in their first 25 games this year – one of the American Hockey League’s best-ever starts.
This is why Penguins general manager Craig Patrick turned to Therrien to help salvage Pittsburgh’s season.
The Penguins (8-17-6) have lost eight of their last nine games and own the Eastern Conference’s worst record.
“He’s very blunt and hard. He’s a no-nonsense guy in that you’re going to do it his way or you’re not going to play. From what I have seen this year, we definitely need that. He is exactly what we need right now. We need a man who can come in and be strong and have my support, Mario [Lemieux]’s support and the ownership’s support to move this team forward,” Patrick said. “We all believe we have the ability here. It doesn’t matter how good you are, you’ve got to want it to be successful.”
Therrien, along with assistant coach Mike Yeo, who also came from Wilkes-Barre, continued his quest to improve the Penguins during their practice at the RMU Island Sports Center on Neville Island.
“I believe that we are going to be able to change things around,” Therrien said. “[Thursday] we started working on our system – I really believe we need some structure. We won’t be able to win many hockey games if we give up over 40 shots and 20 or more scoring chances [per game]. We need to address that to the team. Our first practice, we were focusing on bringing structure.”
Mario Lemieux said he and the rest of the Penguins noticed an immediate impact from Therrien and Yeo.
“Well it has only been an hour and a half, but there is a lot of structure out there,” said Lemieux as he sat in the locker room after practice. “We worked on a neutral-zone trap and a fore-checking system and in the defensive zone. I am sure we’re going to be practicing that every day from now on.”
The Penguins replaced their entire coaching staff as assistants Joey Mullen, Randy Hillier, goaltending coach Shane Clifford and strength and conditioning coach John Welday were relieved of their duties as well. Stephane Dube is the team’s new strength and conditioning coach, while Gilles Lefebvre is the goaltending consultant. Both worked with Therrien in Wilkes-Barre/Scranton. A second assistant coach has yet to be selected, so Penguins’ assistant general manager Eddie Johnston will fill the role on an interim basis.
“I can’t say [Olczyk] failed. The group we did have until [Thursday] failed,” Patrick said.
“I can’t say you can pin it on Edzo or pin it on me or the players. Frankly, for lack of a better term, we screwed up. We have to find a solution right now. We’re going forward to find a solution.”
Despite bringing in a bevy of free-agent talent and drafting Sidney Crosby, the Penguins have struggled all season. They lost their first nine games of the year, but appeared on track in early November with three wins on a five-game road trip. However, the team is just 4-11 since that streak and winless in eight of its last nine games.
Regardless, the decision to fire Olczyk, a former player and popular color commentator in Pittsburgh, was a tough one for the Penguins.
“Edzo has been a very good friend of mine for a long, long time. It was tough to make the decision with Craig,” Lemieux said. “It’s never easy to make changes in the organization. You have friendship over the years and that’s the toughest part. You have to look at the business side as well and do what’s right for the franchise. Things didn’t work out and it’s unfortunate that, when you don’t win, you have to make changes. That’s what we decided to do. I had a good talk with Edzo. He understands the business. He will be fine. He will remain with the organization [in some capacity] and try to help us in the future.”
Still, Lemieux refuses to isolate Olczyk as the reason for the Penguins’ struggles.
“You can’t pinpoint one thing. It’s a combination of things,” he said. “It just didn’t work out. Everything is in the past. Now, we’re looking forward to a bright future, hopefully, as a team to try and get back to making sure we have a winning franchise.”
Patrick wanted to make the changes in an attempt to resuscitate a team that is coming off a series of disappointing efforts in the past week.
“It’s kind of been building. I would say the Minnesota game (5-0 loss on Dec.8) was very disturbing,” he said. “The Detroit game (3-1 loss on Monday) was very disturbing. The St. Louis game (3-0 loss on Tuesday), at that point, was mildly disturbing. The team had shown their face at that point. For whatever reason, they weren’t listening. We needed a new voice in there.”
Nevertheless, Lemieux believes the Penguins still have a chance to salvage their season and climb up the Eastern Conference ladder.
“Yeah, there’s still some time,” he said. “We pretty much have to win a lot of games right off the bat to give ourselves some confidence and get back in the race. There’s still time, but we can’t go on a losing streak.”
Lemieux hopes Therrien’s demeanor and style will motive the team to play with consistency.
“You look around the room and there’s a lot of talent. There’s certainly a lot of young guys, but a lot of talent that has been successful in the past elsewhere,” he said. “They just have to bring that attitude here in Pittsburgh. The coaching staff talked about a change of attitude here and I think it will change in the future.”
Likewise, Patrick insists his players need to unite and move forward under Therrien and his staff.
“I am not going to rehash 31 games and say how disappointed I am, but it’s a new beginning and we’re going to be successful,” he said. “It starts [Thursday] – either the players are going to get on board with us or they’re not. There could be more changes coming depending on what we see in the very near future.
“We look pretty on paper, but what are we? We’ll find out what we are starting [Thursday].”