With a new three-year contract freshly signed, Michel Therrien seemed to cement his status as perhaps the luckiest coach in NHL history.
When he was called up from the Baby Penguins in Wilkes-Barre/Scranton to coach the professional Penguins following the firing of head coach Eddie Olczyk, the Penguins were in the right position for him: last place.
This allowed for the shedding of veterans who were under-achieving to bring up the youth he'd just finished teaching, including Colby Armstrong, Maxime Talbot, Ryan Whitney, and Michel Ouellet. He was also handed the reigns of the likes of Sidney Crosby and Sergei Gonchar.
From there he did something a Penguins coach hadn't done for around five seasons. He installed a system of play.
Until that point, the supposedly high-powered Pittsburgh Penguins (with forwards Ziggy Palffy, Sidney Crosby, Mario Lemieux, Mark Recchi, John LeClair) were supposed to do nothing but score, so defense wasn't supposed to be an issue. (Tampa Bay, I hope you're paying attention.)
This proved to be a poorly judged assessment, and by the time Eddie O. was fired 31 games into the season, they had amassed a total record of 8-17-6. It was clear changes were needed and Therrien was the answer.
With his defensive system installed (with the help of four new players that knew the system already), Therrien guided the Pens to a 14-29-8 record (actually a .002 less winning percentage than Eddie O. had).
The Penguins were set to pick second overall and did so, selecting Jordan Staal. This set into action the chain of events that has me convinced that Michel Therrien owes the devil (and not Sid's new winger) his soul.
Expectations were mixed coming into the 2006-2007 season. No one knew what to expect, other than another fine performance by Sid. Randomly, highly touted Russian prospect Evgeni Malkin defected to America. However, his introduction to the ice was delayed by a shoulder injury caused from a collision from Johnny Vermont LeClair.
As the season started, Jordan Staal was curiously kept around for a short stint. Showing confidence in his rookie, Therrien put Jordan on the penalty kill. For a season likely to be another rebuilding season, this was fine. And for an 18-year-old, he did admirably, even potting a few short handed goals.
Malkin burst onto the scene, announcing his presence in a big way. After a few games of Malkin-Sid-Armstrong, Malkin was deemed good enough for his own line. It happened to shift Staal over to Malkin's wing. That was another fortunate break for the Penguins. Jordan, at 18, potted 29 goals while Malkin piled on 89 points.
Things were going stunningly well for the Penguins as they screamed towards the playoffs. Therrien was looking like a genius.
Until you looked closer.
Nils Ekman, traded during the offseason to play on Sid's wing, had immense success playing alongside someone similar to Sid in Joe Thornton, putting up back-to-back 50 plus point seasons (before and after the lockout) despite being injured for a good portion of the season.
Upon his return, he was playing sparingly with Sid. As they seemed to be clicking and Ekman seemed to be getting his game back, he was relegated to the third line for a large part of the season.
Marc-Andre Fleury was still young and perhaps under-confident. Therrien worked with Fleury in WB/S and jerked him around between three goalies (Sebastian Caron, Andy Chiodo, Dany Sabourin), making it hard for Fleury to really gain any form of rhythm. The same thing happens when he plays in the big club.
While he was anointed the starter, his playing time was extremely staggered. He'd be pulled from games after giving up early goals, or when he seemed to be getting hot, he was put on the bench the very next game so Jocelyn Thibault could take some time.
What were the lines? Therrien would play whomever, where ever, whenever. One shift you would see Crosby out with Malkin and Recchi. The next it would be Staal with Ouellet and LeClair. Next shift: Crosby, Staal, and Malone. There was little consistency for the team to form chemistry.
Everything was overlooked as the Penguins surged ahead with a double digit game unbeaten streak, allowing the Penguins to finish two points behind the Devils as the best in the Division. Sid won the scoring title, and the Pens were in the playoffs for the first time in years.
Therrien was then exposed further.
While his roster was thinner, and a tired Recchi and Malkin hurt the team, he showed what little technical abilities he had. The fast, talented, and tough Ottawa Senators quickly dismantled his system. Therrien had no counter punch. The Penguins were quickly eliminated.
The Penguins added some talent coming into the new season, but the same problems remained. Petr Sykora, brought in to play with Sid or Malkin, was put on the third line. You never knew who was going to be playing with whom. Despite more scoring depth, Recchi remained on Sid's wing even with his very poor play.
The only smart moves that were made (Staal being third line center and Recchi being waived) were made when upper management stepped in. And then, the improved Penguins (expected to be a Cup contender) struggled out of the gate.
Until Thanksgiving, they were either at or under .500. It wasn't until a significant comeback against the best team in the league on Thanksgiving night that the Pens started on their way. Even then it was another Therrien anti-player, Jarkko Ruutu, who was depended upon to save the game.
There were rumblings of players' dislike of Therrien. It could explain the departure of said Ruutu and the loss of trade deadline pick up Marian Hossa.
Speaking of which, the trade deadline passed and the Penguins were improved. Despite many injuries to key players (Crosby, Fleury), the team was still in contention. While it can be claimed that Therrien was responsible, it doesn't take much logic to see past this.
Evgeni Malkin turned his game up to a whole new level as Therrien was finally forced to stick with lines and found that (gasp!) players develop chemistry when playing together for more than two shifts.
Add to that a stretch of play in which Ty Conklin played on a whole new plain of ability for the former "next great USA goalie," and it's no mystery why the Penguins remained in contention.
It wasn't Therrien. It was the players.
Come playoff time, the top two lines were basically set. Dupuis-Crosby-Hossa and Malone-Malkin-Sykora. However, the bottom lines continued to alternate as Therrien desired.
The defense was stellar in front of a 100 percent Fleury, but for some reason Therrien switched D-pairings after a first round sweep of the Senators. The Whitney-Letang combination was terrible positionally, and cost the team a few goals.
The Pens coasted anyway. They made it to the Finals when the better coach and an even team exploited Therrien. Every shift, the Red Wings would press deep into the zone, taking the large amount of room the Pens defense gave them as they continued backing up into the zone.
The Wings would also cut off any chance at a breakout (which always runs from defense to defense to center) by putting pressure on both defensemen.
It wasn't until the Penguins dropped the first two games to the Red Wings, after the Wings exploited the Pens system, that Therrien did something (after muttering in a post game conference he "did not know what else to do") and switched things up.
He finally removed the deer-in-headlights Kris Letang and slow-and-useless Georges Laraque from the lineup in favor of experienced and skilled players. Unfortunately, the Pens would go on to lose what were then close games.
It can be argued that the Penguins had the better players, but the players' leader (Coach Therrien) held them back from being the better team.
Over two and three quarter seasons, Therrien has shown a penchant for not knowing the right time to stop playing players to the detriment of the team. He has been unable to keep set lines and too quickly abandons things, throwing out the "I Give Up" line of Malkin-Crosby-Whoever.
His disciplinary actions have caused issues with players, and his style of game is not flexible.
Don't get me wrong, Michel Therrien is a good coach. The problem is that he's not a great coach.
Therrien can develop players. Just look at his record in youth and developmental leagues. He's had fantastic success. He did a good job helping players like Crosby, Malkin, Staal, Talbot, and Whitney grow into solid players (though it wasn't much work with the first three).
Now that the Penguins are showing signs of competing year in and year out, the youth will be moved in favor of older players who are staying longer term. This is when Therrien should no longer be their coach. They need someone who can take an established team and make them better.
Who that person is, I'll be honest in saying I do not know.
I do feel confident that Therrien's actions of holding on to players for too long, not playing certain types of players (like Ruutu) enough, playing games with players as "punishment" (the scratching of Orpik back home in Boston, he and Whitney playing wing), never taking blame for mistakes, not having a more flexible system, and his inability to let lines gel are a detriment to the present and future of the Pittsburgh Penguins.
This will keep the Pens from reaching the summit. This will keep the Penguins from becoming a "dynasty." He will keep the Penguins from being what they could be.
Can the Penguins win with Therrien? Maybe. With a top flight coach, their chances of winning are improved.
Three more years of Therrien? Not likely. If there is no Cup in Pittsburgh by the end of the decade, expect to see someone new at the reigns.
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