On May 25, 2006, Ray Shero, assistant general manager of the Nashville Predators, was hired to be the general manager of the Pittsburgh Penguins. He took over a team loaded with extraordinary young talent. Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin and Marc-Andre Fleury were just coming of age. But that team got bounced in the first round of the Stanley Cup playoffs, so the makeover began. Now, the only players from Shero's first team still with the Penguins other than Sid, Geno and the Flower are Brooks Orpik, Max Talbot, Kris Letang (who played seven games that year) and Jordan Staal, who Shero drafted as his first pick in the role of GM that summer. The rest are players Shero has developed or acquired.
Last night that team opened its 2011 NHL Playoff campaign with a 3-0 win over the Tampa Bay Lightning. Fleury was brilliant, the Orpik-Letang pairing was a force on both ends of the ice, and though both Crosby and Malkin were out with injuries, the Penguins earned the win. The first goal was scored by Alexei Kovalev, a former Penguin who Shero re-acquired at the trade deadline for a conditional seventh-round pick. It was assisted by James Neal, another trade deadline pick-up, and Paul Martin, an off-season free agent signing. Arron Asham, another off-season free agent signing, got the second, and Chris Kunitz, acquired via trade in February 2009, sealed the deal with an empty-netter.
It was a great night. Fans saw a win in the first playoff game in the new Consol Energy Center. Ray Shero,, the man who has steered the Penguins to two Stanley Cup Finals in his four years at the helm, had every reason to be proud.
But it was a trade that no one remembers that laid the foundation for the success last night and, the Penguins hope, years to come. It was a trade for a player not wearing a Penguins sweater. It was a trade that cost the team a high draft choice. It was a trade in which the Penguins ended up getting nothing in return. It was also a trade that will go down as being as important as any trade that Ray Shero has made.
For years the Penguins have been searching for a winger to play with Sidney Crosby. In 2008 it looked like they had found that player when Shero acquired Marian Hossa in a deadline deal with the Atlanta Thrashers. Hossa and the Pens made it to the Cup Finals that year. But in the off-season Hossa spurned Pittsburgh's offer, electing to sign with the Detroit Red Wings, the team that defeated the Penguins in the Cup Finals. Although they won a Cup the following year, the Penguins spent most of the next two seasons trying to find Gretzky's Jari Kurri to play with Sidney Crosby. With cap space cleared, all the hockey pundits figured the 2010 off-season would see the Penguins finally hit paydirt.
Ray Shero had a different plan.
In the offseason the Penguins brain trust had come to the conclusion that the team's problem was not an inability to score goals, but rather that they were giving up too many. They decided to upgrade at the blue line. They would add a winger if possible, but only after Shero had solidified his defense. He identified his targets.
First up, his own free agent-to-be Sergei Gonchar. Gonchar had had a tremendous run during his five years in Pittsburgh. He anchored the power play and moved the puck quickly, a key to the Penguins' style of play. But he was 36 and Shero didn't want to offer more than a two-year contract. Negotiations were slow.
So on June 25, 2010, Ray Shero made the trade.
He acquired Dan Hamhuis from the Philadelphia Flyers for a third-round draft choice. Hamhuis, due to become a free agent on July 1, had played the previous season with the Nashville Predators. On June 19 his negotiating rights had been traded by Nashville to Philadelphia. The Flyers had until July 1 to complete a deal before free agency kicked in. Realizing they weren't going to come to terms, the Flyers traded his rights to the Penguins. Shero had six days to get something done. He knew Hamhuis from their days in Nashville and he was the defenseman the Penguins coveted. Hamhuis was 27, in his prime. Solid and mobile, he was exactly the core-type of player around whom to build the defense.
Shero worked hard over the next week to get both blueliners signed. Paired with the solid and rugged Orpik and the offensively explosive Letang, the Penguins' top two defensive pairings would provide a great combination of skill and versatility. They could possess and move the puck quickly while also being physical in their own end.
But when noon on July 1 arrived, Gonchar hadn't budged off his demand for three years, and Hamhuis, wanting to play closer to his native British Columbia, couldn't be convinced to stay east. Shero had no signatures on contracts. His plan was in ruins, or so it appeared.
And this is the genius of Ray Shero. He knew the four or five defensemen that he wanted to target in the open market. He had the rights to Gonchar and knew how much he was willing to offer. He acquired the rights to Hamhuis and but came to realize he couldn't get it done. But that knowledge was the key. Knowing he couldn't get those two into the fold on his terms he could focus all his energy on his other targets.
When Gonchar signed a three-year deal with Ottawa minutes after noon (tampering, anyone?), the rush for defensemen was clearly on. But Shero, knowing exactly who he wanted, was also able to strike quickly. Zybnek Michalek (27 years old, five years, $20 million) was a Penguin within an hour and Paul Martin, viewed by some as the best defenseman on the market, (29 years old, five years, $25 million) was signed shortly thereafter. Michalek (more of the physical, stay-at-home type), and Martin (a good-skating, puck-moving, offensive-minded type), filled out the top four pair just as Shero wanted. To the shock of many, the Penguins were able to upgrade their defensive corps despite losing Sergei Gonchar.
When asked about giving up a third-round draft pick for Hamhuis, Shero had this to say:
I would do it again. It's competitive to get defenseman when they are free agents. I had four days to talk to Dan Hamhuis and I didn't have to spend time talking to him today. If I didn't have that opportunity maybe I would have missed out on somebody. I think it worked out well.
With names like Derek Morris, Henrik Tallinder, Anton Volchenkov, Gonchar and Hamhuis (6-years, $27 million) all signing within hours of the opening of free agency, I have no doubt Shero is right. Only get one of Michalek or Martin and this is a very different team.
Without Crosby and Malkin, the Penguins have established a new identity. The foundation of that identity is smart, mobile, physical defensemen. Last night, the organization got to cash in on their off-season investment for the first time in the playoffs. With Michalek and Martin playing as the shut-down defensive pairing against Tampa stars Steven Stamkos and Martin St. Louis, the Penguins shutout the high-flying Lightning.
The wheels behind that win were all set in motion when Ray Shero traded for a guy he never got to see wear a Penguins sweater. But he did get to talk to him.