Before Penguins general manager Ray Shero took over his current position with Pittsburgh he spent 14 years as an assistant GM with the Ottawa Senators and Nashville Predators – two small-market clubs who had to make the most of every penny, especially in the pre-salary cap world.
When Shero was with the Predators he shared a spot in the Western Conference’s Central Division with the mighty Detroit Red Wings. During those pre-lockout days the Red Wings made the playoffs every season from 1990-91 through 2003-04 (and every one since, too), won three Stanley Cups and lost in the Final on one other occasion as their vast array of resources allowed them to have a payroll which dwarfed most other teams – especially the Predators.
While Shero and his fellow small-market colleagues were impressed at the dynasty the Red Wings had built, they often said to themselves, “Wait until we get a salary cap and everyone is on equal footing. Then we will see how good Detroit is.”
Five more playoff appearances, another Stanley Cup, a Cup Final loss to the Penguins in ’09 and a run to the Western Conference Final in ’07 later, Detroit has proven they can win under the cap system. Whereas executives around the league thought Detroit’s success was a byproduct of the money they spent, the Red Wings have proven that it is instead a result of astute drafting, shrewd free agent signings and key additions via trade.
As Shero has watched from afar how the Red Wings have maintained their staying power among the league’s royalty, he has set out a goal for the Penguins to try to emulate Detroit’s and remain among the league’s elite franchises for a prolonged period.
“I want to build a good team and organization that can be sustained for the long haul and be good every year,” Shero said. “You are not always going to win (the Cup), but you want to put yourself in a position.
“You don’t want to load up one year and then not even make the playoffs the next year. With all these young guys we have been able to sustain our success. There are a lot of teams that win and then fall back.”
The Penguins, despite falling in seven games to the Montreal Canadiens in the second round this spring, took the next step to continuing their recent run of excellence in ’09-10.
“We lost in the second round and people can get down, but a lot of teams don’t even get to the second round,” Shero said. “It’s hard. It’s difficult to win. There is a fine line with the salary cap.”
While the Penguins might not have been able to successfully defend their title, they did make the postseason for a fourth-straight season, surpassed the 100-point mark for the third time in four seasons and earned home-ice advantage for the first two rounds of the postseason. Since the ’06-07 campaign, only the Red Wings have won more postseason games (44-38) and rounds (9-8) than the Penguins.
Such excellence is due in large part to the wondrous on-ice wizardry of Sidney Crosby
, Evgeni Malkin
and Marc-Andre Fleury
, along with great coaching from the likes of Dan Bylsma and Michel Therrien before him. But continuing their winning ways means having good offseasons to keep the system re-stocked with complementary pieces to support the high-end talent already in place.
|First-round draft choices such as Jordan Staal (right) have allowed general manager Ray Shero to keep the Penguins among the league's elite franchises. Credit - Getty Images |
That process begins at the STAPLES Center in Los Angeles on June 25-26 when the National Hockey League conducts its annual entry draft. While none of the seven selections the Penguins will make are likely to help the team in ’10-11, this is another huge step in the process of maintaining a continuous talent flow which will allow the Penguins to stay atop the league.
“Unlike football, we don’t draft guys to step into our lineup next year,” Shero said. “In terms of needs, I think in the first round you are going for the best upside that fits your criteria as an organization. When you get into the later rounds you might look for a specific need or to fill some of the depth you might have lost.”
Director of amateur scouting Jay Heinbuck believes the ’10 crop fits the Penguins’ organizational needs perfectly because the talent is so evenly distributed among forwards, defensemen and goaltenders.
“I think this is a pretty well-dispersed draft,” Heinbuck said. “I know some years it seems a little heavy on forwards or defensemen but I think I think this one is pretty even. I think you can even mix in a few goaltenders to the first few rounds.
“I know it is our same song and dance we give to reporters every year but we are looking for the best asset. I know everyone thinks we need to get some wingers, and in a perfect world we would like to get some scoring wingers too, but if there is a difference between a defenseman and a scoring winger, we have to take the best asset. If all were equal then maybe we would lean towards the forward. I think where we are picking we are going to get a nice asset.”
The Penguins have chosen some pretty nice assets with their first-round picks for much of the past decade, so they figure to do so again. If they are able to once more, and also find a way to add 2-3 other future NHL contributors, Shero and his scouting staff will have once again done their part to add the necessary talent required to continuing the Penguins’ winning ways.
And that will leave the rest of the league soon hoping to copy the Penguins’ blueprint to building a winning organization.