May 25 marks a special day in Penguins franchise lore. It was on that day 20 (!!) years ago that Mario Lemieux first raised the Stanley Cup, as the Pens vanquished the Minnesota North Stars in the finals. Five years ago, the team hired general manager Ray Shero, who's made the playoffs four straight seasons and turned the Pens into Cup winners once again.
Here are the five boldest moves Shero has made in his first tenure as an NHL GM.
1. Acquiring Marian Hossa at the 2008 trade deadline (February 26, 2008). This is number one and nothing else ought to be close. The current group of Penguins had just made the playoffs for the first time in 2007, and heading into 2008, management was not content with just taking a slow step forward. The message was sent loud and clear in acquiring Marian Hossa, a terrific winger whose all-around game was one of the finest in all the league.
Shero paid dearly, giving up his 2007 first round choice in Angelo Esposito and also his 2008 first round pick, plus two young, NHL-caliber players in Erik Christensen and Colby Armstrong. Dealing Armstrong, a centerpiece of the locker room and good friend of one Sidney Crosby, sent the message loud and clear: we're here for business, we're here to win.
The Pens would do just that, going 12-2 through the Eastern Conference in the playoffs en route to a matchup with the Detroit Red Wings. Though they wouldn't get over the mountaintop quite yet, dealing for Hossa was instrumental in getting there. Hossa's 26 playoff points ranked only one behind Crosby for the team lead.
Pittsburgh would use the experience gained in '08 to help prepare to play (and beat) the Red Wings in 2009, winning hockey's ultimate prize.
2. Keeping Brooks Orpik and jettisoning Ryan Malone (June/July 2008). Shero had his work cut out for him in the summer of 2008. The Pens were riding high after their Stanley Cup finals appearance, but suddenly the season was over and there were a host of free agents to retain or replace. Just how many? Let's take a look:
Unrestricted free agents: Hossa, Ryan Malone, Gary Roberts, Jarrkko Ruutu, Pascal Dupuis, Adam Hall, Brooks Orpik, Mark Eaton
Restricted free agents: Marc-Andre Fleury
Quite the laundry list of important players. Under the salary cap, the Penguins couldn't afford to keep everyone, but in order to be well-positioned they had to make sure they kept as many of the right players at the right prices. Heading into July 1 and the start of free agency, Shero had any number of choices. The premier unrestricted free agents - Hossa, Malone, Orpik - all wanted to test the open market. Shero identified that not all would fit, so he tried to be proactive and dealt Malone and Roberts for a third-round pick (that turned into college player Ben Hanowski).
Hossa famously did test the market, turning down Pittsburgh's long-term offers in favor of what he perceived his best chance to win the Cup: joining the Red Wings. Spurned there, Shero was able to retain Orpik for six years at $3.75 million per.
Quietly, Shero also brought back Dupuis and Eaton on friendly deals, and Ruutu (who wanted a three-year contract) was replaced in free agency by Matt Cooke (who was willing to accept a two-year deal). Those moves didn't generate the buzz of the biggest signings, but the players would play instrumental roles on Pittsburgh's '09 Cup just the same.
Fleury, as an RFA, was signed to a seven-year deal, and Shero also extended Evgeni Malkin (who had one year remaining on his entry-level contract) for five years.
Just like that, in a matter of weeks, Shero's decisions kept as much of the core of his team together as possible, setting the stage for the Pens to be contenders for the foreseeable future.
3. Firing Michel Therrien, promoting Dan Bylsma (February 15, 2009). The Penguins' core almost didn't realize its potential in the 2008-09 season. There was a huge problem, and it was that the coach was unable to get his players to hear his message. Michel Therrien turned the Pens around - they were famously 'soft' and weak when he took over, but his discipline quickly turned them into a passable team defensively.
Tough coaches can be respected, but sometimes that can sour in a room of mostly-young men, especially when times are bad and losses are piling up. That was the scene in February 2009 when it appeared that as talented as the defending Eastern Conference champions were, that they were likely to miss the playoffs.
Shero had a tough call: Therrien was a good coach, but the ship was quickly sinking. And in the middle of the season there aren't too many great coaching options around, since the best and brightest coaches are all under contract and, you know, coaching. Shero decided to promote Dan Bylsma, a first-year head coach, up to the NHL on an interim basis.
Bylsma, young and energetic, quickly caught the attention of the Penguins, and they rattled off wins. They finished on an 18-3-4 tear under Bylsma, made the playoffs, and eventually wound up Stanley Cup champions.
And it all started when Shero had the moxie to fire a coach who he had given a contract extension to just seven months earlier.
4. Drafting, and standing by, Jordan Staal (June 24, 2006). Shortly after being hired, Shero led the Penguins contingent through his first NHL entry draft. Coming from Nashville's steady and patient organization, is it any surprise he selected two-way center Jordan Staal second overall ahead of flashier offensive players like Jonathan Toews, Nicklas Backstrom and Phil Kessel?
The debate on whether Shero made the right call still hasn't died - all the above named have had finer individual offensive careers than Staal. Toews is a Stanley Cup winnrt. Backstrom has a 100-point season under his belt. Kessel scored 36 goals in his third season.
But Shero saw something else, in terms of Staal's potential and the Penguins roster. With Crosby and Malkin as offensive centers, Pittsburgh was in the unique position not to need to draft an offensive-minded center like Backstrom or Toews were perceived to be at the time. Shero liked Staal's polish and it showed - Staal made the Penguins as an 18-year-old (the only member of the '06 draft class to do so) and Staal tossed in 29 goals as a rookie.
Since then there have been infinite rumors and whispers for Staal to be dealt for other pieces that could help the Pens win, but Shero has remained steadfast in his support for Staal's position with Pittsburgh. Staal's developed into a Selke-nominated forward and is one of the premier two-way players in the game. He was Ray Shero's first draft pick, and his boldest one to date.
5. Adding Paul Martin and Zbynek Michalek on the same day (July 1, 2010). When the Pens were bounced in the 2010 playoffs by the Montreal Canadiens, it was clear that changes would be necessary to elevate the Pens. They lost defensemen Hal Gill and Rob Scuderi to free agency in 2009, and top defenseman Sergei Gonchar's play was clearly on the decline in his own zone.
Shero again proved to be an aggressive general manager when he traded for impending UFA Dan Hamhuis just before he hit free agency. The Pens attempted to sign Hamhuis, but he wanted to test free agency, and there were rumors, later confirmed, that he wanted to play somewhere near his home in western Canada.
Shero knew he wouldn't meet Gonchar's demands, so he set his sights elsewhere. He quickly signed Zbynek Michalek, a sturdy, shot-blocking defenseman from Phoenix, to a five-year, $20 million total contract. Then Shero also added defenseman Paul Martin for five years and $25 million.
In one day Shero plunked down $9 million, or roughly 15 percent of his 2010-11 salary cap, on two of the biggest free agent defensemen on the market. Both proved to be positive performers in that season, and they're locked up for years to come.