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Saturday, July 3, 2010

Ray Shero- Resident Genius

The Pittsburgh Penguins have fallen in some luck getting their core group of players. There is little doubt about this. Only the most delusional Penguins fans will deny that. Their massive failure to draft well and make even trades placed them in the tank at the perfect time, making them able to draft Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin.





However, since the firing of former GM Craig Patrick (who along with a forced salary cap lead to the decline of the franchise) things have been changing very rapidly. On May 25th, 2006 the Penguins hired former Ottawa Senator and Nashville Predator assistant general manager Ray Shero to helm the next generation of Penguins.



He started big right away with the 2nd overall pick in that years draft. Starting out his reign was the pick of the Peterborough Petes forward Jordan Staal.



In his first year on the job, Shero had the Penguins back in the Playoffs after a lengthy absence, aided by Shero's additions of Mark Recchi, Jarkko Ruutu, and Mark Eaton and the promotion of Michel Therrien as head coach.



Despite a quick exit of the Playoffs, the Penguins returned with a tweaked team due to trades and off seasons acquisitions including Georges Laraque, Gary Roberts, Darryl Sydor, and Petr Sykora. The next season the trades paid off in spades, including one to T. As did one other huge trade that Mr. Shero pulled off at the deadline, landing the most coveted player on the market:

Marian Hossa


The blockbuster trade sent Marian Hossa and Pascal Dupuis to Pittsburgh while the Atlanta Thrashers received the Penguins first round pick, forwards Colby Armstrong and Eric Christensen as well as prospect Angelo Esposito.

The Penguins, as a result, made it back to the Stanley Cup Finals for the first time since 1992. The six game defeat gave the Penguins the experience needed to make it back to the Finals the next year, with the off season and trade deadline additions of Miroslav Satan, Bill Guerin, and Chris Kunitz as well as the addition of new coach Dan Bylsma.



Each player was key to a tense Playoff run as the Penguins defeated the Flyers, Capitals (in seven games), Carolina Hurricanes, and finally back to the Stanley Cup Finals where the Penguins faced a familiar foe in the Detroit Red Wings.

This time things were different. The tightly fought series went the distance, going seven games. At the end of the final game, a tight 2-1 final, history was on the Penguins end.



While losing some key players from that team in Miroslav Satan, Petr Sykora, Hal Gill, Rob Scurderi, they still finished fourth in the East this past season while going to seven games in the Eastern Conference Semi Finals before being dispatched from the Playoffs by the Montreal Canadiens.

Through four years, Ray Shero has made some brilliant moves. The Kunitz deal, which also included blue chip prospect Eric Tangradi while sending Ryan Whitney to the Anaheim Ducks, was for all intents and purposes a steal. While the Hossa deal may not have seen Marian Hossa stick around another year, they still kept utility player Pascal Dupuis who has been a key part of the team through both Cup runs and the experience needed to be Champions the second time around.



His track record isn't perfect, as this year can attest. Alexei Ponikarovsky for winger prospect Luca Caputi was a bust, Jordan Leopold for a second rounder wasn't bad until Leopold was brained by the Senators Andy Sutton. Also, prior deals for winger Nils Ekman wasn't quite the success everyone had hoped.



What Shero has excelled in is building around his core, and this year was no different. Free agency marked the change in focus for Shero. In the past he'd always tried to get affordable wingers for Crosby and Malkin. This year, after the defense struggled mightily against the Canadiens he turned his focus elsewhere.

He made perhaps the biggest splash in free agency of any team, landing two of the most coveted defenders on the free agent market:

Former New Jersey Devil Paul Martin



Former Phoenix Coyote Zbynek Michalek



The losses of Sergei Gonchar, Jordan Leopold, Jay McKee and Mark Eaton left some big gaps on a weak blue line. Shero turned his focus to filling those voids with the well known intelligent two way game of Paul Martin and the defensively sound and positionally smart Michalek.

Shero has filled around a core of Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin, Jordan Staal, Brooks Orpik, and Marc-Andre Fleury with two strong defenders who will be there for five years. Complimenting them is the offensive play of Kris Letang and Alex Goligoski as well as the steady play of young Ben Lovejoy. A top four of Letang, Orpik, Michalek, and Martin is putting defense in black and gold on ice instead of on turf across the city in Heinz Field, where it's usually seen.



While wingers are still sparse, the two centers of Malkin and Crosby can pot 100 plus points per season with players like Kunitz, Dupuis, and an aging Bill Guerin, plus the extra players picked up at the trade deadline (Hossa, Guerin, Kunitz, Ponikarovsky are prime examples of past accquisitions) can fill out a formidable roster come Playoff time.

While Jordan Staal is expected to move up to the wing on a line with Malkin (or vice-versa), the third line of Matt Cooke, Max Talbot/Mark Letestu, and Tyler Kennedy is still one of the best third lines in hockey. Further, the addition of Mike Rupp last season makes the fourth line physical and cerebral.



Some people are upset that Shero didn't chase after someone like a Ray Whitney, an Ilya Kovalchuk, or any of the other wingers out on the market this year but what Shero has done is make the Penguins a team which, year in and year out, will now have a blue line that is one of the best in the game.

In the end, two world class centers, a very good third line, a top four of Orpik, Letang, Martin, and Michalek, as well as Marc-Andre Fleury will get you to the playoffs year after year. Prospects like Nick Johnson, Eric Tangradi, and Dustin Jeffrey will be filling in some of the winger spots and those that don't will be filled with free agents and trade acquisitions. Shero has been brilliant in building a team that will be a contender for the Cup from the goal out.

Luck played into it, but once Ray Shero took over the role of GM smart moves and good signings have been his hallmark and have led the Penguins back into prominence. As long as Shero is at the helm, you shouldn't look for that to be changing any time soon.

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