General manager Shero nothing short of Penguins' hero
Ray Shero is having some fun this summer — at his own expense.
This week, Shero acknowledged learning on the job during his first seasons with the Penguins. He admitted that letting Rob Scuderi go was a mistake. He also proposed a scenario in which he would not be employed by the latter seasons of Kris Letang's new eight-year contract.
Shero has been so self-deprecating that it has almost seemed like a calculated response to being named general manager of the year for a season that ended with another disappointment in the Stanley Cup playoffs.
Or maybe, as Shero said Friday, “I'm just joking with some of that stuff.”
This is Shero's time, and that is no joke.
Peers voted him the NHL's best boss, and USA Hockey has tabbed him to serve as No. 2 to general manager David Poile for the 2014 Olympics hockey squad.
Also, his offseason has been the stuff of legend.
Despite a shrinking salary-cap, the first decrease in NHL history, Shero somehow managed to not only re-sign Letang, co-franchise center Evgeni Malkin, top-line wingers Chris Kunitz and Pascal Dupuis and trusted role-playing forward Craig Adams, but he also upgraded the defense with the free-agent acquisition of Scuderi.
“You look at what Ray's done, how he's been able to keep that group together and still find ways to improve it,” Scuderi said. “The Penguins are always in win-now mode. That is because of Ray.”
Lesson: Avoid gut calls
Shero has proven to be many things since replacing Craig Patrick in May 2006.
Minnesota Wild general manager Chuck Fletcher described Shero as a “cool” trade talker. Agent Allan Walsh labeled Shero a “fair” negotiator. Malkin said Shero is “caring to players.” Penguins CEO David Morehouse called Shero an “extremely organized” manager.
Coach Dan Bylsma agreed with those statements but added that the secret to Shero's success — the Penguins have played for the Cup (2008), won it (2009) and reached the conference final (2013) under him — is his overall approach.
“Ray makes decisions based on that information, not his gut,” Bylsma said. “And he takes a lot of things into consideration before making a decision.”
Shero said Friday he is a better, more confident general manager because of lessons learned over the years.
Lesson: Fix your own mistakes
The Penguins never replaced Scuderi's steadying, workmanlike contribution on the back end, and Shero knew it. A salary cap casualty in July 2009, Scuderi signed with Los Angeles as a free agent and flourished as a stay-at-home presence for offensively gifted defensemen such as Drew Doughty and Slava Voynov.
Shero long had sought a similar fit for Letang, not to mention an ideal mentor for a handful of prospects on the back end. That is why Shero phoned Scuderi on Wednesday, the start of a two-day window for teams to speak with impending free agents.
“I told Ray I was surprised to be talking with him because I thought there was no way the Penguins had cap room,” Scuderi said. “Ray laughed and said, ‘I didn't think you'd be available, so we were both wrong.'
“Pittsburgh getting in the mix changed everything. I talked with Ray, and he said (the Penguins) have needed a player like me since I left.”
Shero echoed that sentiment Friday after signing Scuderi to a four-year contract, a move that was preceded by reaching an agreement with Letang on an eight-year deal Tuesday.
Lesson: Move on quickly
The Penguins' previous big free-agent signing of a defenseman happened because of perhaps the most educational experience of Shero's career.
Paul Martin signed a five-year contract worth $25 million about three hours into Day 1 of free agency in 2010. He was offered that deal because of a situation from two years earlier.
Negotiations with winger Marian Hossa had dragged on for weeks and past Day 1 of free agency in 2008. Hossa ended up signing with Detroit the next day, and Shero considered himself fortunate a couple of proven NHL wingers, Miroslav Satan and Ruslan Fedotenko, still were available on Day 2.
His vow was always to have a contingency plan and never again be part of a left-at-the-altar narrative.
Shero acquired the rights to defenseman Dan Hamhuis at the 2010 Entry Draft. Talks did not produce an agreement going into Day 1 of free agency. Sergei Gonchar, the Penguins' top defenseman, signed with Ottawa within an hour of the market opening. Shero anticipated that and had targeted shot-blocking defenseman Zbynek Michalek, who signed with the Penguins less than 60 minutes after Gonchar's departure.
Hamhuis had opened talks with other clubs, and Shero sensed stall tactics after a conversation with his agent around 2 p.m. Shero phoned Martin's agent, asked if Martin was in the room, then asked Martin a direct question.
Did he want to play for the Penguins?
Martin said he did.
Shero transferred the call to assistant general manager Jason Botterill, who worked out the contract.
Shero then dialed Hamhuis' agent, saying only that the Penguins had signed Martin.
Martin was graded by coaches as the Penguins' best defenseman last season.
Lesson: Go with what you know
Kunitz, 33, and Dupuis, 34, remain with the Penguins for a couple of reasons. The first is Shero knows the good and bad of both players. The second is their replacements would have proven costly on the open market.
The public call for Shero to move on from his older players was ignored and not because Shero has an aversion to young talent such as winger Beau Bennett. Rather, Shero kept Kunitz and Dupuis with the Penguins for the next four years because he projected the free-agent market would create bidding wars that forced clubs to sign players at even longer terms.
The Penguins already have three players — Letang, Malkin and captain Sidney Crosby — signed for at least the next nine years, and that is enough for Shero's taste.
Last summer, Shero said he never could take the lead in talks with top free agents Zach Parise and Ryan Suter because they were chasing super-sized deals. Each player signed for 13 years with Minnesota.
On Friday, Toronto inked center David Clarkson, 29, to a seven-year contract, while New Jersey snagged winger Ryane Clowe, 30, for five years.
The free-agent game — franchise-deal terms to non-franchise players — did not appeal to Shero, so he kept his own players. Also, Kunitz and Dupuis are Crosby's preferred wingers, and that top line provides the Penguins the best chance to win next season, Shero said.
That also represents a change for Shero, who arrived in Pittsburgh schooled in the Five-Year Plan philosophy.
“If you worry too much about three years from now, I'm not sure, from what I've seen, how beneficial that is,” Shero said. “So I think you're always learning, which is why I say I think I'm a better manager now than when I started here.
“But, come on, nobody's perfect.”