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Pens GM Shero saved the season

| Tuesday, April 21, 2009

PHILADELPHIA — It's hard to know where blame lies for what transpired with the Penguins last summer.

They waited out star winger Marian Hossa, then lost him, which made them late to the free-agent party. They said goodbye to hometown hero Ryan Malone and other key parts of their personality. They signed free agent Miroslav Satan, which didn't work out (or hasn't yet).

Thanks to the wonders of hindsight, we now can see that the Penguins came into the season lacking team toughness and adequate linemates for star center Sidney Crosby.

We now can see that the expiration date on coach Michel Therrien — who'd signed a three-year extension — was sooner than most could have imagined.

How much of all that was general manager Ray Shero's fault• How much of it was the players in question• How much involved factors beyond those two entities, such as ownership influence and plain old bad luck?

At this point, three games into a hotly contested first-round series against the Philadelphia Flyers, there is only one answer to those questions:

Who cares?

Whether he was the main culprit or not, Shero appraised the situation deep into a stormy season and found a way to fix it.

Every GM makes mistakes. All are faced with adverse circumstances. As with players, the key is how they respond.

Some make it worse.

Shero responded like a champion.

Let's say it plain: He saved the season with a stunning series of moves.

The first was firing Therrien and promoting Dan Bylsma from Wilkes-Barre/Scranton on Feb. 15. The Penguins were five points out of playoff position. They are 20-4-4 since, including an 18-3-4 run to end the regular season.

If that had been, say, 15-7-3, they would have missed the playoffs.

"Dan says now if he knew he had to be 18, 3 and whatever to make the playoffs, he might not have taken the job," Shero said with a laugh during practice Monday at Wachovia Center.

Then, he grew serious.

"It wasn't something I wanted to do," he said. "We had success with Mike Therrien. He did a good job. He helped change the culture of the team well before I got here. But whether the timing was right or wrong, too early or too late, it's a decision we felt we had to make."

Equally critical was the decision to trade defenseman Ryan Whitney to Anaheim for winger Chris Kunitz and prized prospect Eric Tangradi. Shero held out until Ducks GM Bob Murray agreed to include Tangradi, who is having an excellent playoff with Belleville of the Ontario Hockey League.

Kunitz has been a one-man demolition derby.

"Bob Murray and I had talked for a while, and we said, 'This should be a trade that works well for both teams,' " Shero said. "I think it has."

Next was a surprising move in which the Penguins were able to land veteran sniper Bill Guerin for a conditional draft pick.

I asked Shero if the best measure of those trades will be how far the Penguins go in the playoffs.

"Well, I think the first step where they helped was making the playoffs ," he said. "That was goal No. 1, especially where we were at the time."

Easy to forget, isn't it?

It's also easy to forget that the Penguins one-time "core" has long since been broken up and reformed into new groups with different identities.

In at least one respect, then, this club will never be the Edmonton Oilers of the 1980's — as many predicted — even if it wins multiple Stanley Cups.

The times don't allow for teams to remain intact.

Once, all the key young Penguins players envisioned growing old together. Players such as Whitney, Malone and Colby Armstrong were part of that group.

"You get to know those guys and respect them as players and people," said defenseman Rob Scuderi. "It's tough to see them go out the door. But then you have new guys, and you start to grow with that group.

"Once we got Kunitz and Guerin, I thought they really showed us what we were missing. They brought a physical element. And the way they fit in the locker room was great, too.

"Everything kind of clicked right away."

It'd be a stretch to say Shero knew it would click so fast. But he obviously had a feeling.

And a deft sense of timing.

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