Penguins GM: 'We cannot be satisfied just to be in the playoffs'
Ray Shero has not been on the job a full year, but already the Penguins' general manager has helped his franchise take flight following a half-decade of futility.
His first two moves were to draft rookie superstar Jordan Staal and sign unheralded defenseman Mark Eaton. Those moves pointed to better days ahead, as the Penguins have reached the playoffs for the first time since the 2000-01 season, thanks largely to a lethal combination of unrivaled young skilled skaters and invaluable know-their-role players. With the quest for the Stanley Cup just days away, Shero spoke with the Tribune-Review about the surprising year that was, how it came about and where it might go.
Question: How difficult has moving this franchise forward proven?
Answer: It was hard. I had not seen Pittsburgh play that much. The obvious young guys, everybody talked about. But I've always wanted to build a team around more than just one or two players. I really wanted some identity on the third and fourth lines. I really wanted to add some character. To me, there were role players -- Mark Eaton, Jarkko Ruutu, Ronald Petrovicky and Dominic Moore, who did a good job for us until he was traded -- that I felt comfortable with. I had seen Ruutu for a long time, seen Eaton for a long time. I knew those guys and their kind of character. I knew they would help with the fabric of the team and give us some identity, which we needed.
Q: Teams that make long playoff runs tend to possess players such as those you added during an offseason that followed the Penguins finishing with the league's second lowest point total. How much did the contributions of players such as Eaton and Ruutu help mold these Penguins into Cup contenders?
A: Those players were added so that we could become a competitive team, not a playoff team. The immediate goal I set was for this team to become competitive. Then, it became about improving every month, which we've done. We have some tremendous talent on this team, but I really like the contributions of these so-called role players. That's really what you need to become a good team.
Q: Given that the core of this team consists of young talents such as Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin, Staal, Ryan Whitney and Marc-Andre Fleury, who figure to be in Pittsburgh for a while, will your toughest annual task be finding the role players that you've said are needed to complete a Cup contender?
A: Absolutely. If you look at all the good teams, they have an identity that comes from the role players. Those great Islanders and Oilers team had role players that meshed perfectly with their stars. Look at Carolina last season with Kevyn Adams, Craig Adams and Aaron Ward. Those guys all played big roles for the Hurricanes in their Cup run last season. Those guys make a difference in your team because usually they are good on special teams and they are great character guys. We have those kinds of guys here -- the unsung heroes that come up with a key faceoff win, a key goal or a key blocked shot. Eventually, the top guys get shut down and you need somebody to step up. We've had a lot of contributions from Sidney, Evgeni and Jordan this year, but we've also had the guys like Eaton, blocking shots, and Ruutu, scoring timely goals, step up.
Q: Some of the players you inherited from the previous management staff seemed to have fit nicely into a role this season, too. Did you expect such a transition to go so smoothly?
A: I consider guys like (Josef) Melichar and Rob (Scuderi) to be role players to a certain extent. Those guys have to be defended a bit. Scuderi has been a really good penalty-killer and he has a great stick. Melichar jumped up when Eaton got hurt, played against top players and we didn't really lose anything. ... We've got the star guys, which is obvious. But you don't win like we have this season with just stars.
Q: You did not have a lot of time to evaluate what this team needed. How comfortable did you feel with the squad you had assembled coming out of training camp?
A: Well, (former general manager) Craig (Patrick) did a great job. He drafted some players here that were a foundation. I certainly cannot say that 90-plus points were a mandate coming in. It's been a pleasant surprise. But at the same time, we added to what was here and for the most part it has worked well. Our team is unique. It has made things work on and off the ice. It's been a good group. It's been a winning environment. The actual winning helps, but I sense that the expectation around here is to win.
Q: Is the expectation to win in the playoffs realistic given the relative inexperience of this team• There seems to be some thought around the hockey circles that anything this team accomplishes this season is gravy given the great prospect for future success?
A: A lot of people have been surprised as to where this team is. Look, I've been through this before with Ottawa. ... It's taken (the Senators) a long time, and they've had some hiccups. They've had great teams, but they still haven't won the Stanley Cup. Ottawa thought it was on its way, but the truth is that you never know what kind of opportunities you are going to get to win a Stanley Cup. We cannot be satisfied just to be in the playoffs. We have take advantage of this opportunity. I sense that this team really believes it is good, even if it took a while for that to sink in.
Q: When did you start to think this team was good?
A: It was (Nov. 25, 2006), when we lost with about two seconds left to the Rangers. I was really impressed with what we did because, look, the Rangers are a really good team. We lost that game, but I thought, "We're a really good team." We had gone from 58 points the previous year to playing right with the Rangers. It was impressive. That's when I knew we might have something.
Q: What, ultimately, might you have with this team?
A: We have made a lot of strides. We cannot be satisfied, though. Go back to 1985 and Mike Keenan's Philadelphia Flyers. They want to the Finals that year with a group of young kids in Rick Tocchet and Murray Craven. They had surprised everybody, really came out of nowhere. Anyway, that team was down in the first-round series, and Keenan said he could sense his players felt that making the playoffs was good enough. So he went into the locker room and tore them a new one, that they were wasting an opportunity. He told them that next year might not be their year.
Q: Seemingly, there is a lesson to be learned from those Flyers, then?
A: The lesson there is that you can't be satisfied and that you have to move forward all the time. No matter how good we think we're going to be in the future, we have to believe we are good enough to win the Cup now because we really don't know if we'll get another chance like this.