After watching Ray Shero shake the balance of power in the NHL to its foundations over the past week, the temptation might be to compare the Pittsburgh Penguins GM’s stunning moves to 1991, when the Penguins acquired Ron Francis, Ulf Samuelsson and Grant Jennings before going on to win their first Stanley Cup.
But what Shero did was actually more reminiscent of the 1994 New York Rangers. On the March 21 trade deadline day that year, the Rangers were in first place overall by two points over the New Jersey Devils. They were led by one of the most dominant leaders in the history of the game in Mark Messier and had a Norris Trophy winner in Brian Leetch, one of the best goalies in the NHL in Mike Richter and a 50-goal scorer in Adam Graves.
That did not deter Rangers GM Neil Smith from making a series of shocking blockbuster moves on deadline day, moving out Tony Amonte, Matt Cullen, Mike Gartner and Todd Marchant and bringing in Glenn Anderson, Craig MacTavish, Stephane Matteau and Brian Noonan. Smith’s instincts proved bang-on when the Rangers ended a 54-year Stanley Cup drought by winning the prize later that spring.
Anyone can make moves when there’s no other choice, the way Calgary GM Jay Feaster did when he traded Iginla to the Penguins Wednesday night. Those ones are easy. But it takes very large stones to significantly alter the roster of a team that already has two of the best players on the planet and is riding a 13-game winning streak. And that’s what makes Shero the best GM in the NHL today. It’s not that he seems to always come out on the winning side of every deal he makes, although that certainly helps. It’s that he has a steely decisiveness and the courage to back up his convictions with bold actions. Of course it’s a lot easier to be confident in what you’re doing when you continually seem to prove yourself right.
Shero knows that only one team can win the Stanley Cup in any given year. And with the unpredictability of the playoffs, you can assume he’s also aware there is no guarantee his team will be the one to do it this spring. But Shero knows as well as anyone else that when you have a legitimate chance to win a Stanley Cup with a group like he has, you seize it with gusto.
“What are you supposed to say, that we’re not all in?” Shero said, shortly after making the Iginla trade. “Yeah, we’re all in. We want to win.”
Players love nothing more than these kinds of statements by the men who run hockey operations. They love knowing management is doing everything in its power to enhance the opportunity for success. That is what Shero has done with this group. If they do fail to win the Cup this season, his management team will at least take comfort in knowing they did their part to make it possible. Critics have pointed out that these acquisitions will mean nothing if Marc-Andre Fleury implodes in the playoffs again this spring, but that was precisely why Shero went out and got a reliable No. 2 man in Tomas Vokoun. So there goes that excuse.
Last year at the draft, Shero could have kept Jordan Staal another season as his third-line center and risked losing him for nothing as an unrestricted free agent this summer. But after being rejected when he offered Staal a 10-year contract, Shero immediately assessed the situation and dealt Staal to the Carolina Hurricanes for Brandon Sutter, a prospect and the eighth overall choice in the 2012 draft. So what if Shero doesn’t have a first-round choice in June? He had two of them last year and used them to take defensemen Derrick Pouliot and Olli Maatta, fortifying his blueline for the next decade. And that blueline depth was one of the main reasons he was able to part with Joe Morrow in the trade to land Brenden Morrow.
A lot of GMs in this league would be content to have both Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin in their lineup and hope for the best. Not Shero. Nobody in the league today has a better feel for his team, for the league and the fact that standing pat and doing nothing is tantamount to moving backward.
Shero knows he will not be able to keep this entire group together moving forward. But that certainly doesn’t mean he has to view Iginla and Morrow, in particular, as rentals who will be discarded once the season ends. In 2009, Shero brought in Bill Guerin, Chris Kunitz and Craig Adams at the deadline. Adams and Guerin were both pending unrestricted free agents and the Penguins managed to keep all three players, with both Kunitz and Adams still being significant contributors.
Even with the salary cap going down to $64.3 million next season, the Penguins have $10.6 million in cap space with 16 players under contract. You can bet that if Shero thinks Iginla and Morrow have something left to contribute, whether the Penguins win the Stanley Cup or not, he will get it done. After all, the prospect of playing for a serious contender with the best players in the world can be an awfully enticing reason to stay and take a pay cut.
Shero may be rewarded with his second Stanley Cup ring in a couple of months, he might not. After all, you’ll remember Ray Bourque didn’t win a Stanley Cup with the Colorado Avalanche until the year after he was dealt at the trade deadline. Whether they win or not, the Penguins will be in remarkably good shape because of Crosby and Malkin, and because they have Shero at the controls.
Ken Campbell is the senior writer for The Hockey News and a regular contributor to THN.com with his column. To read more from Ken and THN's other stable of experts, subscribe to The Hockey News magazine. Follow Ken on Twitter at @THNKenCampbell.