The Nashville Predators first played in the National Hockey League (NHL) on October 10, 1998 and behind the bench that night was head coach Barry Trotz. Since that opening game, Trotz has been the only man fans in Nashville have called coach. That's something cute and interesting in this day of being hired to be fired but the expectations in Nashville are not exactly on the same level as those for the Pittsburgh Penguins.
In Pittsburgh, great expectations hang over the heads of everyone in the organization from owners Ron Burkle and Mario Lemieux, franchise centers Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin to rookie winger Beau Bennett.
Since winning the Stanley Cup during the 2008-2009 season after losing in the finals the year before, many expected the core of Crosby, Malkin, Jordan Staal, Brooks Orpik, Kristopher Letang, and Marc-Andre Fleury to win another Cup or two before the roster would have to be changed due to the salary cap.
The man behind the bench during the lifting of that Stanley Cup was rookie head coach Dan Bylsma.
Bylsma orchestrated key adjustments with the Penguins style of play by deploying an aggressive 2-man forechecking system, a more aggressive penalty-killing unit that prided itself on getting the puck out of the zone within a few seconds of entry into the offensive zone, going to basics on the power play by getting forwards like Chris Kunitz and Bill Guerin in front of the net and slight change to the way the Penguins went back to play the puck in the defensive zone in order to move the puck out of the zone.
Many were quick then as they are now to discount the importance of Michel Therrien's defensive system and demand for being hard to play against. Therrien's coaching had that team trained and ready to battle and win the Stanley Cup. Few recognize that the day the Penguins and General Manager Ray Shero fired Therrien on February 15, 2009, the team reassigned assistant coach Andre Savard and added Tom Fitzgerald to the coaching staff.
Little is said that the team Bylsma took over didn't have key veteran leaders such as Kunitz (acquired 2/27), Guerin (acquired 3/4/09) or Craig Adams (3/4/09).
After Therrien was fired, Shero said, "It wasn't so much the outcome as the way the game was played. It's not always so much the score. It's just the direction we were going."
That direction was a team who couldn't maintain leads, gave up too many goals, and had the appearance the players were tuning out the head coach as they were getting lax in their approach to the little things demanded just a year earlier en route to a Stanley Cup finals loss to the Detroit Red Wings.
Fast forward to 2013 and you've got a team who has had three consecutive playoff disappointments, the last two in the first round to Philadelphia and Tampa Bay. The Penguins have been a team this season that has been easier to play against, blown 2-goal leads like it was some candy giveaway on Halloween, given up more goals than should be expected (17th - 2.76 goals per game), and just like Therrien's final season, a group that appears to be tuning out the coach.
All of which made tonight's decision to start backup goalie Tomas Vokoun over Fleury a questionable decision, which he explained after the morning skate as "This is a game Tomas has been scheduled to play for a couple of weeks."
Think Fleury was taken aback by the decision and possibly disappointed? He said as much after the morning skate, "I'm not going to lie. Yeah, a little bit. Friends and family are going to be here. Montreal's a good challenge. They're first in the East." And did he understand the surprise decision, "A little bit, but it's fine."
That's about as mad as you'll ever hear Fleury on the record.
Meanwhile, the Penguins had lost two straight games coming into tonight largely due to the skaters in front of Vokoun and Fleury but when you need a goalie to stop the losing, be that stopper, isn't that the job of your number one franchise goaltender?
Like Shero said over four years ago, the direction of the team is important and after blowing another two goal lead in the second period and giving up 6 goals in their wild 7-6 OT win in Montreal, it might be time to change the tune.
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