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 third of a three-part series. Wednesday's entry: Ray Shero discusses how the 2009-10 Penguins were built through free agency, trades, the draft, and what he expects from the defending Stanley Cup champions.
Season Predictions | Other Predictions
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Ray Shero Discusses Life After the Stanley Cup
The John Tavares Handbook
With their Game 7 win over the Detroit Red Wings on June 12, 2008, the Pittsburgh Penguins ended a 17-year Stanley Cup drought, bringing home the franchise's third championship and starting a weekend-long celebration that took over the Pittsburgh streets and night clubs (actually, as recently as a week ago, it was still taking place in some unusual places).
Such a celebration begs the obvious question: how difficult was it to put the success of the 2008-09 season in the past, and start focusing on a 2009-10 season which would be starting in just a little under four months, with the NHL draft and the start of free agency were already knocking on the door?
"It wasn't too difficult at all," said general manager Ray Shero. "We won on a Friday, we enjoyed the weekend maybe until Monday or Tuesday, but, really, it was right back at it trying to sign our own free agents before July 1, then of course you're also getting ready for the draft. I know from talking to some of the Steelers when they won their Super Bowls, the next day they were back in their office getting ready for the draft. So, it's pretty quick when you have to turn back to business, but it's also a nice problem to have."
The Penguins entered the offseason with a number of potential free agents, including forwards Ruslan Fedotenko, Bill Guerin, and Craig Adams, as well as defensemen Rob Scuderi and Hal Gill. The team not only managed to keep all three forwards, but did so on one-year, cap-friendly deals.
Part 1: On His Father, an Icon
Part 2: On the Anatomy of a Trade
Part 3: On Building the Pens, Defending the Cup
The two defensemen, on the other hand, were a different story.
Scuderi, one of the heroes of the Penguins postseason run and an exceptional shot-blocker and penalty-killer, signed a lucrative contract with the up-and-coming Los Angeles Kings, while Gill, a hulking 6-foot-7 stay-at-home-defenseman, inked a two-year deal with the Montreal Canadiens as part of their somewhat drastic offseason overhaul.
Replacing them on the Pittsburgh blueline will be 24-year-old Alex Goligoski, a talented offensive-minded defenseman that is currently one of the organization's top prospects, as well as veteran Jay McKee, who had been bought out by the St. Louis Blues earlier in the offseason. Goligoski played 45 games with the Penguins during the '08-'09 campaign, registering six goals and 14 assists. McKee, entering his 14th season in the NHL, remains a viable top-six defenseman, though one that has been dogged by injuries in recent seasons.
Is it a concern changing a third of the defense with players that have seemingly different skillsets than their predecessors?
"We'll see how it goes," Shero said. "It's difficult, and impossible, to keep everybody with the cap system. Hal (Gill) got a two-year deal in Montreal and Rob (Scuderi) got a four-year deal in Los Angeles, both for a lot of money, and I'm very happy for both of those guys, but that's the system."
"More importantly," he added. "For us, the big thing was we knew internally that Alex Goligoski is ready to play a more prominent role for us. Along with signing Jay McKee as more of a penalty killer and a defensive guy, we like the idea of Alex in our lineup, and (Kris) Letang, and guys like that."
Shero singled out Letang, a former third-round pick from 2005, as a player he expects to have a breakout season after scoring 10 goals to go with 23 assists in 74 games a year ago.
"It's difficult, and impossible, to keep everybody with the cap system. Hal (Gill) got a two-year deal in Montreal and Rob (Scuderi) got a four-year deal in Los Angeles, both for a lot of money, and I'm very happy for both of those guys, but that's the system." "While they are different than Scuderi and Gill, a guy like Goligoski is a really good skater and can move the puck better," Shero said. "He might not be as good defensively as Gill or Scuderi at this point in his career, but he certainly has the upside to get better. So we have two young guys in Goligoski and Letang that have upside to their game, and it's time to give these guys more of a role and an opportunity to move forward."
Something the Penguins are hoping to avoid this season are the early season and midseason slumps the team encountered in each of the past two years. In 2007, they started slow out of the gate with an 8-11-2 mark before getting hot in December, while a fast start in 2008 was nearly derailed by a 12-19-2 run between December and February that ultimately cost Michel Therrien his job. The promotion of former Wilkes-Barre/Scranton head coach Dan Bylsma, as well as the in-season additions of Guerin, Chris Kunitz and Adams (and the return of injured defenseman Sergei Gonchar) helped get the season back in the right direction.
Shero believes a full training camp with Bylsma, as well as having Guerin, Kunitz and Gonchar from the start will help the team to avoid those types of slumps.
"We hope so," he said. "A full camp with Dan and some of these veteran players back in and I do believe, at this point, we have a better team on paper than we did last year at this same time, for sure. The majority of these guys have won together."
While discussing the makeup of this year's roster, one thing I wanted to focus on was, from my observation, a focus on North American players as opposed to European players. Go back a decade and the Penguins were, essentially, a European All-Star team every season, boasting names like Jaromir Jagr, Alexei Kovalev, Martin Straka, and Robert Lang. The 1999-00 team, for example, didn't have a North American skater among its top-eight point producers. It also wasn't uncommon to hear pundits and critics cite them as being "too European." Whatever that means.
Fast forward to this year, and the only European players on the roster are forwards Evgeni Malkin (Russia) and Ruslan Fedotenko (Ukraine) and defensemen Sergei Gonchar (Russia) and the recently-signed Martin Skoula (Czech Republic).
Is it an organizational philosophy and preference? Or is it all simply a coincidence?
"I think it's more of a coincidence," Shero said. "For one thing, teams aren't taking as many Russian players now with the lack of a transfer agreement in place, so a lot of teams are shying away from the Russians. From our standpoint, there's been some players we've wanted to take, but they may have been taken right before us so we elected to take a North American and that's just the way it fell for us. There's not an aversion to European players or any specific country. A couple of years ago we took a Russian goaltender in the fifth round, we took a Swedish player this year, so we're not adverse to taking European players at all, that's just the way it fell for us."
This year's draft was dominated early by Swedish prospects, while there's been a noticeable drop in talent from countries that used to be hockey super powers, such the Czech Republic, which was documented in great detail by James Mirtle earlier this summer.
"I think it sometimes just goes in cycles," said Shero. "A number of years ago it was the Swedes that weren't producing the players, or so it seemed. Then they revamped their national program and then in the last eight to 10 years or so, they've produced some pretty decent players. Of course they had (Victor) Hedman drafted second overall this year, and there's some good young players coming into the league, a guy like Oscar Moller comes to mind."
He continued: "Some countries, like Germany for example, are producing decent players for us, but at the same time the German league is so heavily populated with Canadian import players that there hasn't been a lot of room for some of these younger players to play on those teams and develop. So maybe it goes to the national team and their philosophies and so forth. Europe has always been a good pipeline of talent for the NHL and there's going to be some top players coming out again. Like 29 other teams we're going to have our eyes on those players, and from our standpoint, if it's a Swede, or a Russian, or a Czech, or whoever it is that can help the Penguins, we'll certainly pick him."