When the Pittsburgh Penguins collected their first two championships in 1991 and 1992, player-related transactions, Ron Francis (1991) and Rick Tocchet (1992), were the catalyst that catapulted the Penguins to the apex of the hockey world.
In 2009, a personnel change of a different type and addition of perennial performer provided a spark. That spark ignited Pittsburgh’s cache of young stars to super-stardom.
By mid-February, the Penguins were in a tight spot. They were sitting 10th place in the Eastern Conference standings, two points behind the eighth-place Carolina Hurricanes and found themselves dangerously close to missing the post-season, just one year removed from challenging for their first Stanley Cup title since 1992.
Pittsburgh Penguins Moves at the 2009 Trade Deadline
The team was hit heavy by injuries, losing 173 man games over the course of the season.
Recent losses to the Toronto Maple Leafs (a 6-2 loss where the Penguins allowed six unanswered goals) and a 4-3 OT loss to the New Jersey Devils forced Penguins general manager Ray Shero to take a hard look at the roster and the man in charge of leading the stable of young guns to greatness.
On February 15, 2009, following the loss to Toronto, Shero elected to make a change behind the bench. He relieved head coach Michel Therrien of his duties. Several factors played into Shero’s decision. The Penguins were unable to string together more than two consecutive wins in nearly three months. They also had an underwhelming record of 27-25-5. One bright spot on the season was that Evgeni Malkin and Sidney Crosby were leading the league in scoring
Change Of Direction
“We need a change in direction, and our goal remains to finish strong and qualify for the playoffs,” said Shero.
Therrien had led the Penguins to one of the biggest single-season turnarounds in league history, a 48 point improvement from the 2005-06 season (58 points) to the 2006-07 season (105 points). He also led the Penguins to the postseason twice and Stanley Cup Final in 2008. His reward for the achievements was a new three-year-deal that he signed in the summer of 2009.
With 25 games left in the season, Shero promoted Wilkes-Barre/Scranton Penguins head coach Dan Bylsma with an interim tag.
Shero and Bylsma had known each other since late 1980’s, while Bylsma was part of the Bowling Green University hockey team and had been coaching the AHL Penguins for three seasons.
“I think he’s one of the up-and-coming young coaches in this game. Dan is a very bright guy and he’s very good with the players,” Shero said. “I have the utmost respect for Dan as a player, coach and the job he’s done at Wilkes-Barre this season.”
Blysma was elated with the opportunity of leading the under-achieving Penguins “This is the greatest job and we have a great challenge that we should enjoy and be passionate about,” Bylsma said. “You’re going to see a pretty excited guy who has some pretty good hockey players to send over the boards.”
With a new coach in place, Shero turned his sights on bolstering the line-up for the playoff push.
The Penguins had lost several key players from the previous year’s run to the cup to free agency: Gary Roberts, Ryan Malone, Marian Hossa, Jarkko Ruutu, Georges Laraque and Ty Conklin, all found new homes outside of Pittsburgh.
When the trade deadline hit, Shero had two primary objectives in mind. Find a winger to flank Sidney Crosby, and add additional grit and passion.
Pittsburgh added plenty of sand-paper in the summer bringing in Ruslan Fedotenko, Eric Godard, Miroslav Satan and Matt Cooke via free-agency but were still lacking a solid veteran voice in the locker room.
On February 26, Shero pulled the trigger on two significant deals, acquiring two top-six forwards, that addressed those needs in the short and long-term.
The first deal was with the Anaheim Ducks. Shero landed tenacious winger Chris Kunitz and the rights to Eric Tangradi, in exchange for defenceman Ryan Whitney. Whitney, a phenomenal puck mover, and a pillar on the Penguins defence, in the absence of Sergei Gonchar. The Penguins cupboard was stocked full with several young devencemen at the time. These young defence were poised to challenge for roster spots in the coming seasons. It made Whitney an expendable asset.
Kunitz, a five-year veteran of 315 games, found an immediate home flanking Crosby and added an additional layer of playoff acumen to the roster. It also didn’t hurt that he captured a cup title with Anaheim in 2007.
The second trade the Penguins executed amazed the hockey world. Shero obtained 20-year veteran Bill Guerin from the New York Islanders for a conditional draft pick. Guerin, a veteran of over 1000 regular season NHL games, and 105 post-season games, thrived in his new role with the Penguins. He provided a degree of experience to the team that could not be quantified.
When a deal for Guerin’s services couldn’t be reached with another team, Shero swooped in and took a chance on the Wilbraham, MA, native.
“I think it’s worth a chance with a Billy Guerin, that playing with good players he will be able to score goals. I’m hoping he can re-energize his career here in Pittsburgh. I think it’s a good move for both of us.” said Shero.
Path To Glory
The addition of Bylsma behind the bench and the enhancement to the roster, that Kunitz and Guerin provided, allowed the Penguins to set their sights on capturing a playoff position.
An impressive 18-3-4 run through the final 25 games of the season, earned the Penguins an additional 40-points. This was good for the second most points earned by a rookie coach in his first 25 games. The turn around catapulted Pittsburgh into fourth-place in the Eastern Conference. It also earned them a first-round match-up with the Philadelphia Flyers. The rest is history.
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