As Tuuka Rask caught a point shot at the buzzer from Jarome Iginla and the Boston Bruins officially swept the Pittsburgh Penguins in the Eastern Conference finals last night; the hockey world immediately began to ask the question "What went wrong?" Fans, media, and experts have pointed to things such as lack of production from star players, goaltending instability, and coaching. While all three are possible, the underlying issue likely stems from decisions made in the first week of April.
In the days leading up to the trade deadline; like most General Managers who's teams are Cup contenders, Ray Shero wanted to improve his team. He brought in rugged blueliner Douglas Murray along with ringless veterans Jarome Iginla and Brendan Morrow. All three are guys that teams would like to add for the stretch drive but there is a price to pay that goes beyond the players, prospects and picks that were exchanged.
One of the most underrated components of a Stanley Cup winning team is the bond between the guys on the roster. For the most part everyone comes together at the start of training camp with the common goal of hoisting hockey's holy grail. Night in and night out for up to 9 months you go to battle with each other; going through the wins, losses, injuries, etc. as a group. While rental players are often used, they need to be used wisely. No matter who you bring in, with less than a month to go in the regular season they will replace someone who has been part of the battle from the start.
In the case of the Penguins; they added three new players and thus subtracted three guys who were there since training camp. Iginla, Morrow and Murray are all valuable assets; however, the team dimension in Pittsburgh was shaken by the moves. Although the issue wasn't quite as evident in round 1 or 2, mainly because the Penguins didn't have to be at their best to beat Ottawa or New York, the Bruins were a different animal who showed their resiliency against the Maple Leafs and have yet to look back. To overcome a 4-1 deficit with 11 minutes to go in an elimination game, you have to be on the same page as a team and the Bruins have shown how together they truly are since that moment. In the conference finals, we saw a group playing together and a group playing as individuals. Even in game 3; Pittsburgh's best of the series, most efforts from the star players were of the individual variety.
Likewise, a lack of leadership seemed to surface as the conference finals went on and you would have to assume that this also stems from the deadline moves. Original leaders like Crosby, Adams and Orpik are capable and have been there before but they had to have a different feeling with Iginla and Morrow in the dressing room too. Meanwhile the latter; late additions to the team, didn't want to step on any toes. The end result appeared to be a message lost in translation.
Rental players are a big part of hockey but it is very important to satisfy specific needs. One player might be just what you need to get over the top; however, multiple changes to an already solid lineup may be more of a hindrance than an improvement. I believe the answer to the question "What went wrong?" has more to do with the deadline roster shake up than it does any other proposed theory and is even a contributor to some of those theories.
So what do the Penguins do moving forward? I would suggest very little! If the deadline acquisitions want to comeback, bring them back for another shot. This time they'll be there from the start and perhaps be rewarded with they're desired finish. Let's not forget that Ray Bourque and the Avalanche didn't win the Cup the year he was acquired at the deadline. He resigned in the summer and the following year in training camp the team outlined their mission and at the end of that season, Mission 16W was accomplished.