But in two seasons with the Penguins, Eaton had little opportunity to show just what he could do. Serious wrist and knee injuries had limited him to just 71 games. When July 1, 2008 came along, Eaton was an unrestricted free agent facing a grim future.
But Shero didn't wait long to show just what he thought of the 6-foot-2, 204-pound defenseman, signing him to a two-year, $4 million contract. In a salary-cap world, any contract is heavily scrutinized because a mistake can be so destructive.
"Sometimes, you have to take a chance," Shero told the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review. "We knew the character, and we knew the player. When we signed him, we were optimistic he would bounce back and give us a couple good years."
If the future plays out like the first year, the Penguins will be just fine.
In 63 games, Eaton had just 3 goals and 8 points, but was a plus-2, playing 2:45 per game shorthanded -- third among the club's defensemen -- and his 138 blocked shots were third on the club. Eaton's successful comeback is a big reason why he's among the 30 nominees for the Bill Masterton Trophy, awarded to the player who "best exemplifies the qualities of perseverance, sportsmanship and dedication to hockey."
"It meant a lot," Eaton told NHL.com of the new deal. "Whatever I played there, I think I played well when I was playing. It meant a lot they had the confidence in me and trusted me to come back and replicate that play and stay healthy. ... In Pittsburgh, I hit a string of bad luck. Before my first year in Pittsburgh, I hadn't missed more than three weeks for an injury. He showed a lot of trust in me and I felt I owed it to him to get back to my old form."
That form is just what the Penguins need. With flashy offensive players Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin and Sergei Gonchar dominating the headlines, it's the defensive-minded players that become so important.
Playing that grueling style, however, can take a physical toll. Despite his injury history, though, Eaton doesn't shy away from doing what he has to do, and never thinks about what happened.
He missed nearly three months with a dislocated wrist during the 2006-07 season when the Sharks' Jonathan Cheechoo drilled him into the boards. After returning in January, Eaton missed more time with a knee injury. Last season ended for Eaton on Dec. 23, 2007 after a hit from the Bruins' Marco Sturm left him with a torn ACL in his right knee.
That hit left Eaton on the sideline while the Penguins marched to the Stanley Cup Final. More than the surgery and rehabilitation, watching the games was just as hard.
"I went to every game, but I kind of tried to stay out of their way," said Eaton. "They were doing great things and playing so well, I just tried not to be a distraction. The worst thing for an athlete is being injured and having to watch games."
His teammates certainly noticed his absence.
"Mark is the type of player that if we had him in the lineup, we would have been that much stronger for it," defenseman Rob Scuderi told NHL.com. "You can tell the way he battles each night he's a playoff-type player."
He'll likely have another chance to be a playoff-type player as the Pens have recovered from a midseason malaise to become one of the hottest teams in the League since mid-February.
Eaton also had to suffer through a slow start. While he was medically cleared before the season started, he said it took a while before he felt 100 percent.
"With the knee, the healing and all the rehab and even when you get the green light to get back into action, the element of doubt ... is the knee going to hold up," said Eaton. "It's a process. Not having played NHL hockey for nine months, there was a lot of rust involved there, too. It was by far the toughest thing I've had to go through playing hockey. It took a good 11, 12 months before my knee wasn't really an issue. ... I could tell going up and down stairs and certain things, there was interior knee pain, but most of that subsided around Christmastime. I would go to practice every day and skate and the knee didn't bother me, didn't hurt. That was a year from when it happened."
Eaton's teammates have noticed his return by not noticing him.
"He's an understated player," said Scuderi. "He's the type of guy that if you don't notice him through a game, chances are he's had a good game. Those are things he brings to us every night. They're small things you don't notice on the score sheet, but they're things that help a team."
"The trust that Ray showed in me and the commitment they made, it motivates me to try to be the best player I can," said Eaton. "I think what Ray did last summer was a bit of a risk and a gamble with the way the previous two seasons went. I felt coming into the year I wanted to prove myself all over again and show Ray didn't make a bad decision last summer."
Contact Adam Kimelman at email@example.com.