During his tenure as the general manager of the Pittsburgh Penguins, Ray Shero was the king of the splashy move.
That trend began in earnest in 2008, when Shero brought in star winger Marian Hossa at the NHL trade deadline to bolster a team looking to make a serious run at the Stanley Cup. The following year, his firing of Michel Therrien and hiring of Dan Bylsma coincided with the additions of Bill Guerin and Chris Kunitz to push the Penguins over the top.
In 2011, knowing the Dallas Stars were seeking to shed payroll, Shero stepped in and acquired James Neal and Matt Niskanen for Alex Goligoski. Neal and Niskanen aren’t elite players by any means, but they’ve both had their big moments in black and Vegas gold.
But perhaps no decision was more stunning than when Shero pulled Jarome Iginla out from under the Boston Bruins’ noses last spring, putting a future Hockey Hall of Famer on the roster while simultaneously keeping him out of the hands of a conference rival.
Shero’s gambit ultimately fell flat in the playoffs, but you couldn’t fault him for trying. I know I won’t, and Penguins ownership didn’t dismiss him Friday because of his gutsy deadline maneuverings.
On the contrary, where Shero went wrong was in the so-called “little things” that determine whether a franchise stays at the highest level or falls back to the pack. Regular-season success aside, the Penguins have certainly dropped at least a half-step behind Chicago, Los Angeles and Boston in recent years.
Those teams haven’t been perfect in the postseason since the Pens won the Cup in ’09 – two of the three could fall short of the conference finals this year pending Friday’s results. But those teams have all performed more consistently than Pittsburgh in the playoffs, and it usually takes a superhuman effort to send them home.
That hasn’t been the case with the Penguins, who since 2009 have been eliminated in the following shameful ways: blown out in a deciding Game 7 on home ice (2010), squandered a 3-1 series lead with and without superstars Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin (2011, 2014), melted down emotionally and defensively (2012), and stifled in an embarrassing sweep (2013).
Much of the blame for those exits falls on Bylsma and his players, but roster construction can also be heavily scrutinized. Especially over the past two years, the Penguins have plunged too much money into older players, capped by the albatross that is Rob Scuderi‘s four-year deal.
Beyond that obvious misstep, Shero has committed long-term to thirtysomethings like Kunitz and Pascal Dupuis. Both are still productive, but at some point youth has to take over, especially in a physically-demanding sport like hockey. With age comes brittleness and ineffectiveness, although perhaps the biggest cost of these types of contracts is they restrict salary-cap flexibility.
All that being said, Shero’s draft record may have made the final decision for Penguins co-owners Mario Lemieux and Ron Burkle. Pittsburgh obviously hasn’t been drafting at the top of the first round lately, but there has been remarkably little value derived from Shero’s defense-heavy draft strategy over the years.
Yes, Olli Maatta is a potential star-in-the-making and the blueline combination of Derrick Pouliot and Scott Harrington should be fruitful eventually, but when Brian Gibbons and Lee Stempniak are getting top-six minutes in the playoffs on a presumed title contender, something went wrong in terms of balance.
Shero took a team with promising young players and led it to a back-to-back conference titles, a Stanley Cup and boatloads of regular-season victories. However, over the past five years, the cracks in the Penguins’ foundation have been gradually exposed.
It’s time for a new architect.