Ray Shero Talks About Building a Team in the Salary Cap Era
One team that's been a good model for the "quality over quantity" argument over the past couple of seasons has been the Pittsburgh Penguins, a team that, as of July 20, has 60 percent of its cap space for this upcoming season occupied by just six players: Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin, Zbynek Michalek, Paul Martin, Marc-Andre Fleury and Jordan Staal. Crosby and Malkin alone combine for 30 percent. Outsiders continually view it as a problem that will eventually need to be addressed in the form of a trade.
General manager Ray Shero, however, doesn't seem all that concerned about it.
"If you have money tied up in three or four guys, hopefully that means you've got three or four top players," said Shero during a phone interview with FanHouse. "The worst thing you can do is have three or four guys tied up in big money contracts, but they're not difference makers. We're fortunate here to have Crosby and Malkin as our franchise players. We have a lot of money tied up in them, $8.7 a piece cap wise per year. When you go back to the pre-lockout era, it's hard to recall, but there used to not even be a roster size and you could have as many guys on your roster as you wanted. When Detroit won the Cup, back whenever it was, and Luc Robitaille was a fourth-line player, a Hall of Fame guy, you could carry 28 guys on your payroll if you could afford it."
With so little cap room to work with around core players, teams must be creative, smart and efficient when it comes to filling in the open areas. Cheaper veteran role players being one way, while player development becomes vital. The Penguins are one of a number of teams that have started prospect development camps, a week-long training session in the summer -- which the Penguins completed last week -- that focuses on teaching and educating younger players. Shelly Anderson of the Post-Gazette recently wrote an article that talks about how such camps are a by-product of the cap era.
It's possible that the Penguins will be relying on one of Eric Tangradi, Dustin Jeffrey or perhaps even Nick Johnson to fill a prominent role on one of their wings this upcoming season.
"We didn't really want to use the development camp as an evaluation as much as an education for the players," Shero Said. "I think it was our best development camp so far. The competition was really good, we liked what we saw in Eric Tangradi and Dustin Jeffrey, and they showed they have a chance to help us.
"Still, It's more of an education for the players both on and off the ice," he continued. "This is the one time we can see a number of college players, and they have to pay their own way, but I think it's good for them because they never had the chance to come to training camp to get a feel for what it's like. It's really their only chance to see what it's like in that environment and meet the people and coaches and have some idea of what to expect."
And while player development takes on an entirely new level of importance (and it's always been important), it's also paramount to utilize the players already on the roster. One such idea that's been kicked around in Pittsburgh is the possibility of teaming Malkin and Staal together on a line. It's been done before (during their rookie seasons) and resulted in Staal scoring a career-high 29 goals (he also had an abnormally high 22 percent shooing percentage). I asked Shero if he was at all concerned about the possibility of taking one of his prized centers and "limiting" them (my wording) to one side of the ice as a winger.
"Not really," he said. "Depending on what Dan (Bylsma) is going to do with our lineup, these guys, Evgeni Malkin in particular, he's all over the ice no matter what position he's playing, whether it's center or wing. Four years ago they played together -- Jordan played wing -- and obviously it worked out well for both of them as they both had great years."
"Whatever we do here the idea is to give these guys as much ice time as possible," he added. "Good players like to play with good players. I think it's important that we look at all options to make our team better and give these guys an opportunity to grow as players and give them more responsibility."
Speaking of more responsibility, one player that will be facing pressure to have a strong, bounce back season is Fleury, the team's starting goaltender. The Penguins invested heavily in defense this offseason by adding Michalek and Martin on the free agent market, addressing a unit that was considered a weakness by the end of last season. It's becoming a common trend for teams to load up on defense these days, but most that do so also tend to invest less in goaltending, instead opting to upgrade other areas of their team. The Penguins, of course, have Fleury signed for five more seasons at an annual cap hit of $5 million per year.
"I think it really depends on your current set up in terms of what you have. If we didn't have Marc-Andre Fleury we'd probably look in a different direction," said Shero. "But we happen to have a top-10 goalie, we paid him accordingly, and it certainly paid off when we won the Cup. He was obviously a big difference-maker for us in the playoffs."
"I think it really just depends on how your team is going to be built. Detroit has never really had a ton of money in goaltending, they choose to spend it elsewhere. A team like Philadelphia now, that's kind of what they're doing, going heavy in defense and not as much in goal. Every team is a little bit different. If you have it, you want to keep it. If you don't, there's other avenues you can go to to hopefully have success on a year-to-year basis. I think it just really depends what you have for assets in goal. I'm not looking to move Marc-Andre Fleury to replace him with another goaltender, that's just not what we're looking to do. We have Marc-Andre, we'll keep him and build our team that way."