Early Exits by Pittsburgh and Vancouver are Not Cause For Concern

In the world of sports, success can breed jealousy, but it can also breed expectations.

The Pittsburgh Penguins and Vancouver Canucks are two examples that provide some credence to the above statement as both of the teams were unexpectedly booted from the 2012 Stanley Cup Playoffs in its opening round. With Pittsburgh having won a Stanley Cup and Vancouver having made an appearance in the Stanley Cup Finals in 2011, there might have been some expectations for the teams that could have been hard to meet. Regardless of a team’s standing, ownership and management usually go into the hockey season with a “win it all” mentality, but some expectations that are set by fan bases might not be realistically met on a year to year basis.

When any team in any sport wins a championship or makes it to the final stages of a championship round, then the bar for that specific team is raised significantly higher. Even though the Vancouver Canucks lost in the 2011 Stanley Cup Finals, the team was pegged for immense success in 2011-2012 by a fair amount of analysts and fans. The same can be said about the Pittsburgh Penguins who made two straight trips to the Stanley Cup Finals and gave many in the hockey world a reason to believe that they might just be the next dynasty team in the NHL. However, Pittsburgh and Vancouver’s early exit from the 2012 Stanley Cup Playoffs did not do much in the way of quelling the dissatisfaction of either team’s loyal fan bases.

While many might consider these early exits a failure, the Pittsburgh Penguins and Vancouver Canucks have dedicated front offices that can effectively cope with the agony of defeat and stay the course for their respective teams. The reigns of General Managers Ray Shero and Mike Gillis might be scrutinized by some, but both individuals have guided their franchises in the right direction since taking over. Ownership and management might not always see eye to eye, but it is clear that the higher-ups in Pittsburgh and Vancouver are pleased with their management crew and are willing to let their respective General Managers assemble the necessary pieces to return to possible Cup glory.

Here are some ways that the Canucks and Penguins might deal with their “failure”:

Vancouver Canucks

After being beaten by the Los Angeles Kings, the Canucks’ ownership made an executive decision and extended the contract of General Manager Mike Gillis. Even though Gillis did not bring the 2011-2012 Canucks back to the promised land, the general manager fielded a very impressive squad of players that managed to take the Presidents’ Trophy and played extremely well for the duration of the 2011-2012 regular season and playoffs.

Canucks GM Mike Gillis has gradually transformed Vancouver into a powerhouse and premier destination for hockey players. (CalvinChanPhoto/Flickr)

The Canucks suffered a first round loss to the eighth seeded Los Angeles Kings, but the success (or lack thereof) of the season should not be judged on one playoff round. After all, the Kings have dominated their competition during the 2012 Stanley Cup Playoffs and had one of the league’s best goalies in Jonathan Quick. While the Canucks did lose to an eighth seeded team, the Kings have proved to be anything but a one-round wonder in this year’s playoffs. Even though the Canucks lost to the Kings, a team does not win back to back Presidents’ Trophies through smoke and mirrors.

Gillis’ tenure in Vancouver has shown Canucks fans and hockey fans alike that the GM is quite adept at acquiring the right players that fit Vancouver’s system. Gillis managed to lock up Ryan Kesler and Alexandre Burrow to multi-year deals that were economically feasible for the team and gave Gillis more flexibility to manage the team’s roster. Resigning the Sedin twins in 2009 was also one of the GM’s strongest moves, but Gillis has been essential to the marketability and gradual growth of the Canucks.

Vancouver has become a great destination for players and Gillis should be given a fair amount of credit for the way that he has transformed the organization. Vancouver’s General Manager has not only added a great level of respectability for the franchise, but he has also been very shrewd with the management of his players. Gillis’ contract extension must mean that the Vancouver ownership trusts the GM and his vision for the Canucks. While Mike Gillis and Vancouver’s ownership will probably proceed as planned for the 2012-2013 NHL season, the team might be inclined to deal Roberto Luongo as Cory Schneider might be ready to handle the starting duties for the Canucks.

The Vancouver Canucks’ core has been put into place because of Mike Gillis and the team’s progression will likely continue into the near future. When the 2012-2013 NHL season begins, the Canucks may not be the same team that they were roster-wise in 2011-2012, but the organization will probably continue in the same direction that they have been going in for the past several years. Roberto Luongo’s possible exile might change the look of the Vancouver Canucks, but hockey fans should expect the same type of commitment to excellency from the organization, especially with Mike Gillis at the helm for an extended amount of time.

Pittsburgh Penguins

The battle of Pennsylvania may not have gone the way that the Penguins envisioned it, but there is no reason to think that Pittsburgh won’t be back to cause havoc in 2012-2013.

After being ousted by the Philadelphia Flyers in the first round, many might have turned their attention to Pittsburgh’s General Manager, Ray Shero. Much like Gillis, Shero deserves much credit for building the Penguins into a consistent contender since taking over GM duties for the team in 2006. Some might argue that it is hard not to succeed with superstar talent such as Evgeni Malkin and Sidney Crosby, but the General Manager has surrounded his team with the necessary elements to be competitive for years to come.

Ray Shero Penguins

Ray Shero will have his work cut out for him in the next couple of years, but Pittsburgh's GM has done a fantastic job with the Penguins thus far. (Charles LeClaire-USPRESSWIRE)

Since 2007, Shero has made some key deadline acquisitions for the Penguins as he has added the likes of players such as Gary Roberts, James Neal, Alex Kovalev, Bill Guerin, Chris Kunitz, and Matt Niskanen to help the team make lengthy runs in the Stanley Cup Playoffs. Shero’s savvy has also enabled the Penguins to grow and expand their brand as the General Manager has been able to restore the franchise to its winning ways. While it does help to have a hockey icon such as Sidney Crosby playing for your franchise, Shero has done a lot to make the Penguins a consistent contender.

Ray Shero hasn’t made the Penguins into a force by simply relying on Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin to deliver the goods.

Instead, Shero has assembled the right players around his two superstars to ensure that the team can compete when one of their big guns is absent for a prolonged period of time. While Evgeni Malkin, James Neal, Pascal Dupuis, Chris Kunitz, and Jordan Staal all stepped up in a big way during Crosby’s absence, the team also played many games without Kris Letang on defense. However, Pittsburgh still managed to finish with the second-best point total in the Eastern Conference, something that would not have been possible without the acquisitions of Shero.

Losing to the Philadelphia Flyers could definitely have been a shock to a very good Penguins team, but the team will probably continue business as usual when it comes to preparing for the 2012-2013 season. Shero will likely have some decisions to make regarding Pittsburgh’s depth as players such as Arron Asham, Matt Niskanen, Steve Sullivan, Richard Park, and Brent Johnson are set to become unrestricted free agents. With Shero having signed Tomas Vokoun to a two-year contract, the Penguins will have a new backup goaltender behind Marc-Andre Fleury. Sidney Crosby is entering the final year of his contract and Evgeni Malkin’s contract only runs through 2013, so Pittsburgh’s GM will be tasked with making some tough decisions when it comes to retaining his superstars. While Ray Shero might just choose to keep only one of his superstar forwards, Penguins fans should rest assured that their General Manager will make the appropriate moves to ensure the long-term success of the franchise.

Coping With “Failure”

There are many ways that teams can choose to cope with a failure to achieve goals. Sometimes a team will choose to let go of its head coach or General Manager in order to address its issues. In contrast, an organization might choose to completely change direction and scrap a team while keeping its management and coaching intact. In short, there are a number of ways that an organization can deal with failure, but a team’s progress (or lack thereof) is the most significant factor when evaluating what direction management or ownership want to take with a given team.

While the Pittsburgh Penguins and Vancouver Canucks suffered early exits from the 2012 Stanley Cup Playoffs, the General Managers for both teams will do whatever it takes to get their respective teams back to the Stanley Cup Finals. There are no more guarantees in the NHL aside from knowing that it gets increasingly harder to repeat the same level of success for an extended period of time. The success of the Canucks and Penguins over the past few years raised expectations for both of the franchises and there are many that view a season’s end without a Stanley Cup a failure.

Winning a Stanley Cup and making it to the Stanley Cup Finals are extremely hard tasks to achieve. For the last two decades, teams have not been able to put together the dynasty runs that were so prevalent in the 80s from teams such as the Edmonton Oilers and New York Islanders. It is that much harder to stay competitive in the NHL these days and getting to the Stanley Cup Finals in consecutive years certainly takes a toll on any given team.

It may be easy to sit back and judge from afar, but teams such as the Pittsburgh Penguins and the Vancouver Canucks have placed incredible expectations on themselves by playing at such a high level over the last few years. Losing in the first round of the Stanley Cup Playoffs can be demoralizing for any group of managers, owners, or fans, but such happenings should not be seen as failures. If anything, the early exits on behalf of the Canucks and Penguins should be viewed as a minor setback that will only drive management, ownership, and the players to perform at a higher level in the future.

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