Blueprint carries Penguins from worst to first
Their ascendancy from finishing dead last to hoisting the Stanley Cup spanned only five years, a meteoric rise that typically would serve the rest of the NHL as a formula to follow.
If only it were that simple.
The Penguins are an amalgam of failure and fortune, turning four losing seasons and a lockout lottery into five consecutive top-five draft picks. They hit jackpot in back-to-back years, with perhaps the greatest consolation prize in hockey history in 2004 second overall pick Evgeni Malkin and a prospect with such stature that thousands of season tickets were sold within hours of his selection as the top overall pick in 2005, Sidney Crosby.
Sometimes, it takes failure to find fortune.
"I don't think Pittsburgh is apologizing for it," said agent Paul Krepelka, who represents former Penguins defenseman Ryan Whitney and current Penguins center Jordan Staal. "It's a successful blueprint. Having said that, it's a little easier to follow that blueprint when your core players are some of the best on the planet."
Their turnaround was a magical mixture of smart scouting and drafting with a decisive direction, calculated changes in management and coaches, tough trades and shrewd signings.
"I've been in the business long enough to know that it's a combination of a lot of things," Nashville general manager David Poile said of the Penguins' success. "You have to have the right chemistry, the right role players, the right coach and the right manager. You have to bring in key guys at the trade deadline. If you don't have all those things going your way, then you don't win."
'A plan in place'
It's easy to dismiss the Penguins' rise to prominence as a result of drafting goalie Marc-Andre Fleury, Malkin, Crosby and Staal in succession with either the first or second pick from 2003-06.
But starting in 2000, the first round also brought defenseman Brooks Orpik, winger Colby Armstrong and Whitney. Later rounds produced forwards Ryan Malone (fourth round, 1999), Max Talbot (eighth, 2002) and Tyler Kennedy (fourth, '03) and defensemen Rob Scuderi (fifth, '98), Alex Goligoski (second, '03) and Kris Letang (third, '05).
Former Tampa Bay general manager Jay Feaster, now an NHL analyst for The Hockey News and TSN, calls it a "sour grapes" approach for other organizations to suggest the Penguins are only so good because they were first so bad.
"How many top-five picks have Atlanta, Columbus, Florida and Ottawa had?" Feaster said. "You can have those picks, (but) you better make sure you do the right thing with them."
Ray Shero, who was named the Penguins' GM in May 2006, deflects much of the credit for the Penguins' success to co-owners Mario Lemieux and Ron Burkle, as well as ex-general manager Craig Patrick, former scouting director Greg Malone and ex-coach Michel Therrien for providing the building blocks.
"They had a plan in place," Shero said. "I walked into a situation where, with Crosby and Malkin, we had two franchise players. We just had to fill in the blanks to a certain extent."
After spending 14 years as an assistant GM, including eight under Poile in Nashville, Shero showed he could make shrewd decisions. What separates Shero is his ability to balance conservatism with risk-taking.
"He inherited a great situation, but he's made some great moves," Krepelka said. "The last two seasons, he's done it as well or better than anyone else."
Filling in the blanks
As much as Shero is known for pulling off deadline deals — acquiring winger Marian Hossa from Atlanta for a package of players and picks in 2008, and sending Whitney to Anaheim for winger Chris Kunitz this past February — his finest hours are connected to Staal.
The Penguins already had a star center in Crosby and a promising center prospect in Malkin. But Shero hung onto the No. 2 overall pick in June 2006 and selected another center in Staal.
Not that the players picked immediately after Staal are slouches: center Jonathan Toews is Chicago's captain, Nicklas Backstrom is Washington's second-line center and winger Phil Kessel was coming off a 36-goal season when Boston traded him to Toronto this past summer for salary-cap reasons.
"That turned out to be a really strong class," Shero said. "But to us, Jordan was the guy we thought we could win with."
The Penguins made the playoffs for the first time in six years in 2007, when Crosby led the league in scoring as the league's MVP, Malkin won Rookie of the Year honors and Staal finished third. Crosby signed a five-year deal — at an annual cap hit of $8.7 million per, about $1.5 less than the maximum he could have commanded — that would prove to be the most important of the team's numerous long-term contracts.
Not only did Shero help the Penguins keep their young stars in place, the moves signaled the club's philosophy of being strongest down the middle. In the Cup Final, Crosby, Malkin, Staal and Fleury showed why it was the correct call. The Penguins won the Cup, in part, because of a trade Shero didn't make last winter. He declined to deal Staal, who, in turn, made Shero look smart with a short-handed goal in Game 4 that proved to be the turning point of the Cup Final.
"Probably the guy we got the most calls on was Staal," Shero said. "We talked a lot about where we were going as a team, especially last February when we were struggling, and our decision was to stick with Staal.
"Even with a losing streak, you can't deviate. The Whitney deal was something different because we were dealing from a position of strength and trying to balance our lineup.
"I think (Staal) is a big reason why we won the Cup."
Shero made his mark by sending Armstrong, Erik Christensen, 2007 No. 1 pick Angelo Esposito and the 2008 first-rounder to Atlanta for wingers Hossa and Pascal Dupuis. Hossa, coming off a 100-point season, was the centerpiece despite his previous playoff shortcomings.
"I scratched my head when they acquired him at the (2008) deadline because they paid a significant price," Feaster said. "He's a tremendous talent, but he's not Mark Messier, who knows how to get there."
Paired on the first line with Crosby, Hossa starred in the playoffs (12 goals, 14 assists) as the Penguins reached the Cup Final. An unrestricted free agent, he rejected the Penguins' seven-year offer of $50 million to sign a one-year, $7.5 million deal with Detroit that summer.
While that appeared to be a devastating blow, it allowed Shero to use the cap space to lock up Malkin, Orpik and Fleury to long-term deals last July and to extend Staal in January by four years for $16 million.
""When you see the two best guys on your team, Sid and Geno, make a commitment like that," Orpik said, "it kind of has a trickle-down effect on everybody else."
The Hossa fallout also helped shape Shero's philosophy on what would propel the Penguins.
"You hear a lot, 'Geno and Sidney need 40-goal guys to play with,' but it's hard to tie $21 million down the middle and then go out and get an $8 million winger," Shero said. "Something's gotta give there."
What won out is the belief that the Penguins could succeed with youth and veteran role players.
"I don't think I've ever been involved in a deal where there hasn't been a risk," Poile said. "What Ray has been able to do is make moves to benefit the team. A manager has to have vision — for not only what makes sense today but maybe the next two or three years."
'A successful blueprint'
That's the dilemma Feaster faced after Tampa Bay won the Stanley Cup in 2004. He signed stars Vincent Lecavalier, Martin St. Louis and Brad Richards to long-term contracts worth a combined $97.5 million.
"Ultimately, that was kind of their downfall," Orpik said. "They had so much invested in those three guys, they didn't have enough money to build around them."
What Feaster couldn't predict was the implementation of the salary cap under the new collective bargaining agreement after the 2004-05 season lockout. The Lightning lost goalie Nikolai Khabibulin to free agency and never found a suitable replacement.
"I never had a shot to plan for that," Feaster said. "That's the unfortunate part. You look at what Ray has done. He has planned under the existing CBA. What will the new one affect what he has done• That's going to be one of the challenges for Ray going forward: What happens at the end of 2010-11 season?"
What last season proved is that the core can change at a moment's notice, as can the coaches. In a span of about three weeks, Shero made three major moves that changed the course of the club. First, he fired Therrien Feb. 15, only seven months after awarding him a three-year contract, and replaced him with a rookie coach in Dan Bylsma.
"(That was) probably the most crucial decision," Poile said. "That's just knowing what to do and when to do it."
Then, Shero dealt Whitney, in the second season of a six-year contract, to Anaheim for wingers Kunitz and Eric Tangradi on Feb. 26 because of an abundance of puck-moving defensemen in the system and the need for a first-line winger.
Finally, he traded for veteran Bill Guerin on March 4, providing another first-line winger and leader.
The moves sent a message that, except for Crosby, Malkin, Staal and Fleury, no one was safe.
"We've seen our organization the past couple years get better and better," defenseman Sergei Gonchar said. "We had to make those trades to become a champion."
Let's make a deal
A look at how Penguins general manager Ray Shero built the Penguins into 2009 Stanley Cup champions and future Cup contenders:
Locked up Cs Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin and Jordan Staal, D Brooks Orpik and G Marc-Andre Fleury for a four-year window from 2009-10 to 2012-13 at a combined salary-cap cost of $30.15 million.
• Signed Petr Sykora to 2-year contract in July 2007.
• Signed Ruslan Fedotenko and Miroslav Satan to 1-year deals in July 2008.
• Signed Maxime Talbot to 2-year extension in December 2008.
• Claimed Craig Adams off waivers from Chicago in March 2009.
• Signed Matt Cooke to 2-year deal in July 2008.
• Marian Hossa and Pascal Dupuis from Atlanta for Colby Armstrong, Erik Christensen, 2007 No. 1 pick Angelo Esposito and 2008 No. 1 pick in February 2008.
• Hal Gill from Toronto for 2008 second- and 2009 fifth-round picks.
• Chris Kunitz, negotiating rights to Eric Tangradi from Anaheim for Ryan Whitney in February 2009.
• Bill Guerin from New York Islanders for 2009 conditional pick (a third-rounder) in March 2009.
• Gary Roberts from Florida for Noah Welch in February 2007.
• Signed coach Michel Therrien to 3-year contract in July 2008, only to fire him Feb. 15, 2009, following a 27-25-5 start.
• Replaced Therrien with first-year Wilkes-Barre/Scranton coach Dan Bylsma, who had no NHL head-coaching experience but led team to the Cup.
• Trading Whitney less than two years after signing the defenseman to a 6-year contract. The trade brought a first-line forward in Kunitz to play alongside Crosby.
• Watching unrestricted free-agent Hossa leave without compensation to sign a 1-year, $7.5 million contract with the Detroit Red Wings allowed the Penguins to lock up Malkin, Fleury, Orpik and Staal to long-term deals.
• Sent Satan to the AHL — while his wife was in the final weeks of her pregnancy — to free up cap space to acquire Guerin. Satan later returned to the Penguins and played a pivotal role in the Cup playoffs.