Penguins general manager Ray Shero has a lot of tough decisions to make this offseason. But one of his most important decisions was also his easiest to decide – his team’s head coach.
Shero inked Dan Bylsma to a two-year contract extension that will keep the longest-tenured coach in team history behind the bench through the 2015-16 season.
“I really believe we have a great head coach in Dan Bylsma,” Shero said. “I believe he is the coach to lead us forward. I have faith in his ability as a coach to get better as he moves forward. I think that’s the sign of a great coach.”
The Penguins are only a few days removed from being eliminated from the Eastern Conference Final, but already general manager Ray Shero is making plans for the future.
“Now as a manager, you look back and it’s a part of learning and getting better, learning from the loss in the third round, and applying that going forward,” Shero said. “It’s a lot of stuff to do in short period of time leading up to the draft June 30th and free agency July 5th.”
The Penguins have several key decisions to make regarding the club’s roster. The team’s top priority is re-signing NHL MVP and two-time scoring champion Evgeni Malkin as well as Norris Trophy nominee defenseman Kris Letang. Both players will enter the final year of their contracts in the 2013-14 season,
“With the Malkin-Letang situation, they’re both under contract for another year. They’re not going anywhere,” Shero said.
The Penguins also have several players that will be unrestricted free agents, most notably Pascal Dupuis, who enjoyed the two best seasons in his NHL career and expects a hefty pay raise from his current $1.5 million salary.
But other free agents include Craig Adams, Matt Cooke, Jarome Iginla, Dustin Jeffrey (restricted), Tyler Kennedy (restricted), Brenden Morrow, Robert Bortuzzo (restricted), Mark Eaton and Douglas Murray.
“This team is going to change, that’s the way it is,” Shero said. “It happens every year with the salary cap, free agency, trades. Change is sometimes good. Change is sometimes hard. The goal is to have a team that can entertain the fans, that can compete for a Cup and put ourselves in that position.”
In addition, the league-wide salary cap for the current season was set at a pro-rated amount of $70.2 million, and will drop to $64.3 million next year. The Penguins currently have $56.4 million committed to next season.
Shero will have to weigh the team’s long-term plan against their current framework.
“My goal every year is to ice a team under the salary cap that can compete and try to keep an eye on next year and the year after,” Shero said. “Also knowing we’d like to have a real good team every year. There’ll be changes as usual.”
Sometime in the following days, Shero will meet with his pro and amateur scouting staffs to discuss a battle plan for handling the roster and creating the best team possible.
“I’m trying to make sure we’re a team that our city is proud of, a entertaining hockey team that can compete for the Stanley Cup and put ourselves in that position every year,” Shero said. “That’s our goal moving forward.”
Bylsma was entering the final year of his current contract for the 2013-14 season. Shero showed his full support for Bylsma by lobbying team owners Ron Burkle and Mario to re-sign him at their annual post-season meeting. But he didn’t exactly have to twist their arms.
“From Ron and Mario’s standpoint, they were 100-percent supportive,” Shero said. “They made it clear they would like to move forward with Dan Bylsma.”
But even more than the team’s owners, Shero wanted to move forward with Bylsma.
“The extensions are important to me. It’s a statement that I believe in Dan Bylsma,” said Shero, who also signed assistant coaches Tony Granato and Todd Reirden to extensions. “I believe in our coaching staff.”
Many fans and media have questioned the future of the team’s coaching staff after the Penguins were swept in the Eastern Conference Final by the Boston Bruins and lost in the first round in the two seasons prior. But Shero wasn’t going to make an emotional decision.
“Public sentiment is not kind,” Shero said. “No disrespect to fans or media boards or the radio, I can’t listen to it. I’ve got to make the decision based upon the knowledge I have. You have to trust the fact that I probably have a little more information.
“I can’t base my decisions on (public sentiment). If I do then I’m not doing myself a service, or owners a service, or our fans a service. I appreciate everyone’s opinion. If no one had one there wouldn’t be any interest in the team. There is a passion for this hockey team that is outstanding. I don’t take it lightly.”
Shero pointed to defenseman Paul Martin as an example of public sentiment. Following Martin’s play in 2011-12, the public was ready to help him pack his bags. But after committing himself in the offseason to improve, Martin transformed into one of the team’s best defenseman this year.
“Going back one year, public sentiment wasn’t on Paul Martin’s side,” Shero said. “It really wasn’t. To make a decision on Paul Martin based upon that would have been easy. Get rid of Paul. To his credit, he wanted to stay and be a part of what he came here for. I’m happy I made that decision.”
Besides, it’s not like Shero didn’t do his homework on the situation. He even forewarned Bylsma that he would be evaluating the job he did behind the bench and getting feedback on the coaching staff from the players.
“I told Dan, ‘I need to evaluate your job, your staff and ask the questions,’” Shero said. “I told him in player interview meetings I’m going to ask the players just so you know. I asked them not only about their game, or what happened or the system. I’m asking about the coach and what they think. I don’t want to hear what I want to hear, especially guys that played for different coaches and came from different organizations. ‘What do you see?’”
After a full evaluation of Bylsma and his staff, Shero knew they were his guys.
“He’s my coach,” Shero said. “I have a responsibility to ownership, our fans, my family, to do what I think is right for the team. I believe in my evaluation of the team moving forward that I have a very good coach that I want to lead this team.
“I wanted to reward him with an extension that shows him and people that he’s my coach and I believe in him.”