Pittsburgh Penguins general manager Ray Shero was kind enough to spend nearly an hour on the phone with FanHouse's Adam Gretz discussing a variety of topics. This is the second of a three-part series that will run throughout the remainder of the offseason. Wednesday's entry: Ray Shero discusses the anatomy of a trade, focusing on the deadline-day acquisition of Bill Guerin from the New York Islanders.
On Saturday, February 28, one week before the NHL's trade deadline, then-New York Islanders captain Bill Guerin took part in the pregame skate prior to the team's contest with the Buffalo Sabres only to be lifted from the starting lineup. Given the month, and the fact a veteran player -- a captain, no less -- on a non-playoff team was suddenly a healthy scratch, rumors instantly begin to swirl around the league. Guerin was definitely on the move, but nobody knew where he was going, and for what return.
After a week-long saga that drove Islanders fans to the brink of insanity, Guerin was finally sent to the Pittsburgh Penguins.
Something I've always been curious about in professional sports is the process of two general managers getting together and consummating a trade. I have this somewhat bizarre vision of 30 general managers sitting in their offices across the NHL (or any professional league, for that matter) and treating it like an elaborate fantasy league -- only with a much larger prize than the one you and your buddies hand out every year. Does Brian Burke sit in his office and scream at the commissioner because a trade between the Senators and Rangers is too one-sided? Is there that one general manager that fills your inbox every day trying to acquire your best player for a collection of fourth-liners and a backup goalie with no value?
Part 1: On His Father, an Icon
Part 2: On the Anatomy of a Trade
Part 3: On Building the Pens, Defending the Cup
"It's not at all like that," laughed Penguins general manager Ray Shero. "You're always analyzing your roster during the season and the strengths and weaknesses of your roster. Every team keeps a depth chart of every other team in the league, and your pro scouts are in charge of scouting those teams and games and keeping your evaluations current. Sometimes, it just really goes to a specific need as to what you're looking for."
"Some managers are different," he continued. "I try to keep in touch with most of the managers in the league once a month, or something like that, simply to touch base. There's other managers I know that unless they need something specific they'll call you in terms of what they're looking for and ask. They don't call around to keep in touch. Sometimes It's hard to keep in touch with 29 other managers, and, sometimes, you may have a better relationship with some than others in terms of past relationships. From my standpoint, I like to kind of be in the loop as to what's going on in other divisions and conferences, or, what's going on with certain teams. So you have to keep current with what's going on in the league, but most important, you have to ask yourself, 'what does your team need?'"
"I just told them we had some interest in Billy (Guerin), but not at the price you're asking." In late February and early March, it was pretty obvious to anyone observing the Penguins as to what their biggest needs were: top-line wingers to play alongside Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin, and some of the toughness they lost the previous offseason when Ryan Malone, Gary Roberts and Jarkko Ruutu exited Pittsburgh as free agents.
Less than a month earlier, the Penguins had completed a trade with the Anaheim Ducks -- dealing from a position of strength to fill a position of weakness -- by sending puck-moving defenseman Ryan Whitney out west in exchange for forward Chris Kunitz and top prospect Eric Tangradi. On deadline day, Shero put the finishing touches on his roster by claiming gritty veteran Craig Adams on waivers from the Chicago Blackhawks, and trading a conditional draft pick to the New York Islanders for Bill Guerin. The condition on the pick was as follows: If the Penguins missed the playoffs, the Islanders would receive a fifth-round pick. If the Penguins qualified for the postseason and lost in the opening round, the Islanders would receive a fourth-round pick. And if the Penguins qualified for the postseason and advanced beyond the opening round (which they did), the Islanders would receive a third-round pick.
So how did it all come about? Well, let's rewind back to Feb. 28 when the first Guerin rumors started to fly. There were a number of factors at play, including the trade being completed, and the fact that Guerin's contract included a no-movement clause, meaning he would have the right to veto any trade that was not to his liking. Once the initial rumors surfaced (from FanHouse's Christopher Botta at his Islanders Point Blank blog), it became a waiting game until the team confirmed the deal.
It's still unknown as to which teams were in the bidding at that point, though it's not hard to speculate. Guerin preferred to remain in the Eastern Conference, and likely would have wanted to play for a team that had a legitimate shot at winning the Stanley Cup. At the time, that would have limited the options to Boston, Pittsburgh, Philadelphia, Washington, and perhaps the Rangers or Devils. The asking price could have been as much as a first or second-round pick.
It's a fair guess that Washington was one of the teams making the strongest push, especially since one of their first moves this offseason was the signing of veteran winger Mike Knuble -- who fills a role similar to what Guerin would have filled -- to a two-year contract. Of course, at this point it's all guesswork since every team denied being part of the trade talks.
Including the Penguins.
"It wasn't us," said Shero. "It was another team. I'm not sure who that was, but it wasn't us because I didn't have the cap room at that time. I knew what I didn't want to give up, and I didn't want to give up a first-round pick in a deal at the deadline. We had done that the year before in the (Marian) Hossa deal. Really, it was two first-round picks: the first-round pick and (Angelo) Esposito who was a first-round pick the year before, so I didn't want to do that for our franchise, so really the asking price at that point for me was too steep."
Shero continued: "With the Islanders and (general manager) Garth Snow, I just told them we had some interest in Billy but not at the price you're asking. He was waiting on something else, but we just kept in touch and it went down to a couple days before the deadline. He called back and I told him what I would offer him in a trade. I think at that point Garth was really good about it because he really wanted to treat Billy well and give him an opportunity. I don't think there was any doubt once Pittsburgh was on the table that Billy would waive his no-trade to come to here. It was a pretty quick decision for him and his family. I think in the end Garth did a good thing for the Islanders, which ended up being a third-round draft pick, and it worked out well for us."
Worked out well would probably be an understatement. Skating on the Penguins' top line with Crosby and Kunitz, Guerin registered 12 points in 17 regular season games, and was a force in the postseason with a career-best 15 points in 24 games, including an overtime game-winner in the Penguins' opening round win against the Philadelphia Flyers. He was also the first person to get the Cup from Crosby following Game 7 in Detroit. Things worked out so well for Guerin and the Penguins that the two sides came together on a one-year contract extension following the season.
"For Billy it was a case of here's where I want to be, and he wanted to be treated with respect," said Shero. "Obviously he made a big contribution to our team so at the end it wasn't a real long negotiation at all. We were both up front and honest with each other that this is where he wanted to play, this is where his family wanted to be, and he understood it was going to be one year and the number worked out for us and him."
Making trades in today's NHL isn't quite the same as it was six or seven years ago. The addition of the salary cap has certainly limited what teams can do, and adds another dynamic to the process of constructing your roster. Clubs no longer have a bottomless pit of money like they had in the pre-lockout NHL. (Of course, there are ways around the salary cap if you don't mind signing guys to 12-year contract extensions).
"It's much more difficult with the cap and a 23-man roster now," said Shero. "Plus, there's still some teams on a tight budget and that's the way they have to operate. Decisions you make are going to affect your salary cap and more and more now, you're also looking for future years. What's going to be the commitment? Does that guy have terms left on his contract? So even if you like a player, if you really don't want to be tied up contractually moving forward, if a player has three years left on his contract then you take him out of consideration for your team if that's not where you want to go in the future with your cap. So there's a lot of things to think about when you're looking at a potential trade."
Aside from the financial aspects, teams also have different evaluation tools when it comes to identifying players. In early August, I spoke with Chris Snow, director of hockey operations for the Minnesota Wild, who is now working for one of Shero's former right-hand man, Chuck Fletcher, and how they use statistical analysis as a tool in evaluating players -- something the Penguins aren't overly involved in when it comes to identifying potential trade targets.
"We do some statistics," said Shero, with an emphasis on the "some" aspect. "We mainly break things down with scouting and video, but we've taken a look at a lot of the statistical analysis out there but at the end of the day I'm not quite certain what they're telling us, to be honest with you. Again, we do use some of it, but I can't say we're overly involved in breaking down the statistics. I mean, we're not in the Moneyball thing here, in my opinion, so we're not really into that at this point."