PITTSBURGH – If Ray Shero has displayed nothing else during his nearly two-year run as the Pittsburgh Penguins’ general manager, it’s that he is not afraid to make a potentially risky move.
After succeeding Hall of Famer Craig Patrick in May 2006, Shero was very tempted to make a very young Penguins team better in a hurry by dealing the No. 2 pick in the following month’s draft for several proven players.
He didn’t make a move many young GMs might make, passing up several significant trade offers to draft Jordan Staal, who didn’t turn 18 until several months later. Shero was rewarded with a 29-goal rookie season by Staal, the kind of production a veteran added in a trade might not have matched.
Shero also could have fired coach Michel Therrien and brought in his own coach, the move many new GMs make. He didn’t, and Shero was rewarded with the fourth-best turnaround season in NHL history in 2006-07 – and a 2007-08 season that was nearly as good despite major injuries to Sidney Crosby and Marc-Andre Fleury.
Crosby, Fleury and Evgeni Malkin, the Penguins’ most important players? They were already in place, or on their way, when Shero arrived. But many key components of the team that will play Philadelphia in the Eastern Conference finals beginning Friday were not.
Shero’s crafty rebuilding job is a major reason why the Penguins are one of four teams still playing for the Stanley Cup, and his players recognize that.
“He deserves a lot of credit for the team we have here,” forward Gary Roberts said Tuesday.
Shero’s biggest moves were signing the playoff-experienced Petr Sykora and renowned agitator Jarkko Ruutu and trading for forwards Marian Hossa, Pascal Dupuis, Roberts, enforcer Georges Laraque and Hal Gill, the kind of physical, shutdown defenceman the Penguins have long lacked.
Hossa, Dupuis and Gill were added at the trading deadline in February, deals that required Shero to give up promising forwards Colby Armstrong, Erik Christensen and Angelo Esposito plus two draft picks. With Hossa unsigned for next season, Shero risked giving away a lot for only a few weeks of production.
Shero was convinced a team only two years removed from being the worst in the conference was ready to win a Stanley Cup, and not in a year or two. He didn’t want to sit around all summer second-guessing himself for not making a move that might have made a difference in April, May – or June.
“We are fortunate that Ray Shero made fantastic moves at the trade deadline to pick up players that are the caliber to play with Sidney Crosby,” Therrien said. “A lot of credit goes to Ray Shero for making those moves.”
Still, Armstrong and Christensen were popular among their teammates – Armstrong was Crosby’s road roommate and best friend on the team – and the trade could have disrupted that all-important locker room chemistry.
“I thought long and hard about that,” Shero said. “But being able to add a Marian Hossa and Pascal to our group, we thought it was worth the risk – and the reward might be worth it.”
There’s an old saying in sports that the best move an executive often makes is no move. Shero apparently believes the best move is not being afraid to make one that might not be popular immediately.
“It’s one thing just to add players, but you want to look at the character of guys. He’s done a great job adding character to the team, and not disrupting the good thing they have going in here,” Roberts said. “He (Hossa) came in here and you could tell right away he just fit right in, and Dupuis is the same.”
Hossa has five goals and 10 points in nine playoff games, including the overtime series-winner in Game 5 Sunday against the Rangers. Dupuis has five points. Gill was such a force defensively in the New York series, it was obvious the Rangers were shying away from setting up their offence on his side of the ice.
The 45-year-old Shero gained much of his thinking about the game from his father, former Flyers coach Fred Shero, who was nicknamed The Fog because his mind always seemed to elsewhere, dreaming up some new scheme or tactic.
While the elder Shero later coached the Rangers, the family retains strong ties to the Flyers and Ray Shero said his 84-year-old mother still is a Flyers fans.
The younger Shero once played for the Flyers’ youth team, and he remembers sitting in the stands as a 12-year-old passionate about his father’s team.
“When I walk out of there now, I think, ‘Man, those guys (fans) are crazy – and I was one of those,”‘ Shero said.
Shero, whose given name is Rejean, knows much about the current Flyers. He was Nashville’s assistant GM, working under mentor Dave Poile, when current Flyers Scottie Upshall, Kimmo Timonen, Scott Hartnell and Ryan Parent were in the Predators’ organization.
All that long-ago loyalty to the Flyers ends in this series, of course.
The two Stanley Cups won by Fred Shero’s teams in 1974 and 1975 remain the last won by the Flyers, and Ray Shero wants nothing to do with helping them win a third. Not with Pittsburgh eight wins away from winning its third.
“Both Philadelphia and ourselves have played good hockey to get to this point, and I’m looking forward to it,” Shero said.