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Prisuta: Player-friendly atmosphere for Pens

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By Mike Prisuta
Sunday, July 12, 2009

Upon becoming general manager of the Penguins, Ray Shero had an agenda.

"One of the first calls I made was to see if I could get Jay McKee," Shero said.

Three seasons and one Stanley Cup later, Shero has his man.

All it took this time was a one-year, $800,000 offer.

Granted, the conditions of McKee's buyout by the St. Louis Blues stipulated that he receive $2.5 million-plus just for walking away.

Still, veteran defensemen with grit and character command more than $800,000 on the open market.

But McKee was more interested in competition than compensation.

There's a lot of that going around.

It started when Sidney Crosby took less than he could have demanded.

Evgeni Malkin followed suit.

And then Brooks Orpik.

And then Jordan Staal.

Now comes an offseason that has seen Bill Guerin, Ruslan Fedotenko and Craig Adams all return for — forget market value — less than they made last season with the Penguins.

It'd be understandable if, after helping a team win a Stanley Cup, they felt entitled to a raise.

They're apparently more interested in raising another banner.

This is what the Penguins have become.

Mike Babcock saw this coming before the Penguins upended his Red Wings in the Stanley Cup Final, and predicted before the puck dropped for Game 7 that all the winning the Penguins have done of late would serve as the best possible recruiting tool, as it has for years in Detroit.

But it's not just the wining that has transformed the Penguins into a destination franchise.

"You can't make it happen unless you have the support of ownership," Shero said.

It goes beyond Mario Lemieux and Ron Burkle deciding to spend to the salary cap in advance of receiving the anticipated revenue bump that will be generated by the new arena.

It includes, Shero maintains, treating the players with honesty and respect, whether they're in the process of being re-signed or sent to Wilkes-Barre/Scranton.

And it's all based, Shero said, on the creation of a family-type atmosphere that strives to take care of the players' families and loved ones as well as the players.

An example of how that works: When a player is acquired, there's usually a little something that arrives at the door for his wife a couple of days later. Shero's wife Karen often sees to such "Welcome-to-the-Penguins" gestures.

"It's not much," Shero said. "Within the limits if the salary cap."

An example of what that produces: A Thursday visit to Shero's office by Mark Recchi for a 45-minute catch-up visit. That's the same Recchi who was a healthy scratch late in his most recent Penguins tenure and ultimately placed on waivers by Shero.

Players still leave via free agency.

Money still talks.

But they're a lot easier to retain and replace these days, given the environment created by a fan base that gathers by the thousands to watch games outside Mellon Arena and the potential to win recognized by players around the league such as McKee, who has been to a Final but hasn't won one.

"We've won a Stanley Cup," Shero said. "We have Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin. It's Mario Lemieux's team. There's a new building coming.

"There's not too much not to like."

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