The Rise and Fall of Ray Shero’s Pittsburgh Penguins: Part 1

The Pittsburgh Penguins made the surprising decision to fire General Manager Ray Shero on Friday.  The Penguins qualified for the playoffs every year under Shero’s guidance, including two trips to the Stanley Cup Final and one championship.   This is the first installment in a two-part series on his tenure.

Game 7: Defining a Franchise

When the Pittsburgh Penguins and Washington Capitals met in the Eastern Conference Semifinals in 2009, it was the most highly-anticipated second round matchup in league history.

The NHL’s two most exciting, young franchises were on the rise and stood in each other’s way.  Both were capable of winning a Stanley Cup. Only one would get that opportunity.

A tight, back and forth series ended with a lopsided Game 7 victory for the Penguins.

The Penguins went on to win their first Stanley Cup under GM Ray Shero. The Capitals never recovered.

Washington ran into red-hot Jaroslav Halak and the Montreal Canadiens in the playoffs the following year.  They lost in Game 7.  Suddenly, they didn’t like the team they saw in the mirror anymore.

Blaming bad luck, tough matchups, or hot goaltenders doesn’t sit well with ownership in postseason debriefs. GM George McPhee and head coach Bruce Boudreau abandoned their team’s identity in an effort to salvage employment. Neither were successful and the Capitals now enter the summer of 2014 looking for a new General Manager and Coach to right the ship.

But what if the Capitals had won Game 7 in 2009?  How would the story be different for the franchise?

And the Penguins?

Hitting your number on the roulette wheel that we call the Stanley Cup playoffs can throw expectations out of whack as well.  Consider standard probability:

If a team had a 60% chance of winning every playoff round they played in, they would be a very good team.  That team should be quite satisfied with their achievements and not be tearing itself apart because they are disappointed with their results.

What does it mean to have a 60% chance of winning every playoff series that you enter?  It means that you have a 0.6^4 chance of winning the Stanley Cup in any given year as you have a 60% chance of winning in four different rounds.  That leaves this team with a slightly under 13% chance of winning the Stanley Cup in any given year.  A team with a 60% chance of winning in any playoff series they enter will probably not win the Stanley Cup in any given year.  In fact they should go several years between cup victories.  They should win the cup once every 7-8 years.  Each other year they should lose to a team that they were favored to defeat.

Ray Shero has been Pittsburgh GM for 8 playoff years.  During his reign the Pittsburgh penguins won the Stanley Cup once.  These results are consistent with our hypothetical team that has a 60% chance of winning any given playoff series they enter.  That result got him fired.

(Timothy T. Ludwig-USA TODAY Sports)
(Timothy T. Ludwig-USA TODAY Sports)

The Capitals would have loved to be nine wins away from a Stanley Cup this season.

The Penguins?

We aren’t happy to be in the top quartile,” Penguins owner Ron Burkle told the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review on Friday.  “If you make it to this round, you’re in the top quartile. That’s good enough for some. It isn’t where we want to be.”

Burkle went on to say that it wasn’t just a Game 7 loss to the Rangers that cost Shero his job, but the results of the entire season — a season in which they coasted to a division title and 109 points, the most in over 20 years, despite over 500 man-games lost to injury.

The Penguins’ marketing campaign in 2010 was ‘Defy Ordinary‘.

Their campaign next season should be ‘Defy Probability’.


Did Shero Fail?

When President and CEO David Morehouse was asked if there was one specific thing that led to Shero’s dismissal, he said no and didn’t elaborate.

Other than the quartile comment above, Burkle and Lemieux pointed to a few areas of failure in their discussion with the Tribune Review.

It starts at the draft:

DK: The root of any successful franchise is the draft. How big of a problem was the drafting?

Lemieux: It’s a problem. We’ve drafted well on defense. We’ve got some great prospects coming up, guys who are still in Wilkes-Barre, in juniors. We haven’t done as well at forward, obviously, but we’ve got some defensemen, some young guys we feel can step in over the next year or two.

Despite the leading question, Lemieux seems to support the notion that Shero failed at the draft.

I don’t get it.

The bad draft narrative picked up steam this season after the Penguins’ third and fourth lines failed to establish any sort of identity or success.

The Pensblog did a phenomenal breakdown of Shero’s draft record in March.  They concluded that:

I won’t say that the Penguins drafted with success under Shero, but I also don’t buy into the draft failure narrative either.

The jury is still out.

A common misconception is that the GM plays a very significant role in the draft.  In Pittsburgh under Shero — like with many successful franchises — drafting depth charts and decisions are left to the staff who are paid to be in those roles.

Current interim GM Jason Botterill once explained it this way:

“We oversee amateur scouting, but it’s sort of been a situation where Ray’s belief is unless you’re in amateur scouting the whole year…if you just dabble in amateur scouting, that can be a problem.  So we allow our amateur staff to kind of run the course and run things their own way and we just oversee how things are setting up there and when we need to change personnel.”

If you buy into the theory that the Penguins’ drafting has been a disaster, then the criticism of Shero should be for his unwillingness to “change personnel” — in the words of Botterill — the same personnel that Morehouse endorsed in his press conference.

“We think what we have — with Jason Botterill and with our scouting staff and Tom Fitzgerald, we have a group in place that can take care of us for the draft.”

Ken Holland (left) has been an inspiration for many NHL General Managers (Rick Osentoski-US PRESSWIRE)
Ken Holland (left) has been an inspiration for many NHL General Managers (Rick Osentoski-US PRESSWIRE)

Let’s look at the ‘bad results’ from a devil’s advocate perspective too.

The Penguins modeled themselves after Ken Holland’s Detroit Red Wings in many facets.  Here’s how Holland explains the development of his younger players:

Some of these players won’t play in Detroit for six years. It’s a process. After [development camp], then the process is to go home, and hit the gym, and then some of them will go to a world junior camp, and then it’s to come back in September and play in the prospect tournament. Then they go back to their league and hopefully put all of the experience and knowledge to work. But it’s a long, long…long process.

Shero led the Penguins through eight drafts.  Let’s ignore the positive and negatives of 2006 — his first draft less than a month after being hired — and the drafts of 2012 and 2013 because they’re so recent.

We’re left with five draft classes, none of which featured a pick inside the top 20.

The 2008 draft didn’t start for the Penguins until the fourth round due to Shero’s aggressive trade deadline moves — acquisitions that were intensely-discussed and encouraged by ownership, as documented in Andrew Conte’s book ‘Breakaway‘.

Do Burkle and Lemieux suddenly have buyer’s remorse?

I won’t argue that Joe Morrow, Scott Harrington, Josh Archibald, Beau Bennett, Bryan Rust, Kenny Agostino, Simon Despres, Philip Samuelsson, Ben Hanowski and other picks from those years will be NHL stars, but I like what I’ve seen from a handful of them.

The reality is that question marks next to developing players do nothing to silence the crowd of Shero critics who want more fourth liners and they want them now.

A few years ago, Botterill also acknowledged the lack of patience in the salary cap era:

“We’re always in a situation where we want to have players in the NHL yesterday.  And players see other players in the NHL and they want to be in the NHL too, but it doesn’t always happen. You have to be patient with these young players because they are developing down [in the minor leagues] and we have good coaches down there in Wilkes-Barre. We know they’re developing on the right track.”

Holland echoed the same sentiments:

“We can put these kids in the NHL, but we’re going to lose if they play in the NHL now. We want to win. They need to learn how to check. They need to learn how to hit the gym. They need to learn how to be pros. They need experience. This is part of that process.”

The ‘Now Now Now!’ portion of the fanbase was thrilled when the Penguins finally bucked the trend and stuck 2012 first-round pick Olli Maatta on the opening day roster this season.

I was vocal in my criticism of the move based on two factors:

  1. Maatta was only 19 and his inexperience could be exposed. Crucial mistakes lead to shattered confidence and sometimes the premature end of a career.  Just ask Matt Niskanen about his early days in Dallas.
  2. If Maatta performed well, the clock would be ticking on his tenure as a cheap asset with the Penguins.

Maatta certainly proved me wrong in the first point, but the second point looms larger than ever.

His impressive 29-point rookie season was one of the best in franchise history, not far behind Ryan Whitney’s 38-point debut in 2006.  Second contracts are based largely on statistical performance and Whitney cashed in on a second contract that paid him upwards of $5.5 million per season (in an era when that money put him amongst the NHL’s elite defensemen).

It also started the clock a year early.

Maatta could have returned to juniors and his entry-level contract would have been delayed a year.  Who knows where Maatta goes from here, but if I’m the Penguins, I’d still rather have an extra season of Maatta in his prime at a controlled cost instead of the 19-year-old season we just saw with Maatta running out of gas by the end of the year.

Maatta wasn't ready to play a full NHL season (Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports)
Maatta wasn’t ready to handle the grind of a full NHL season (Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports)

These are the asset management questions that Botterill or a new General Manager will have to ponder after ownership made it known that patience and development are no longer part of the gameplan.

The Shero firing couldn’t have come at a worse time either.

I always envisioned this season as a transition year for the Penguins with the cap dropping to $64 million.  Shero and the Penguins went all-in at last year’s deadline, as they should have, and came up short.

The second shoe was set to drop this offseason, and specifically right now heading into the most active part of the year from a trade or contract perspective.

Win or lose, the Penguins were set to make significant changes to the roster.

Right or wrong, Penguins ownership didn’t give Shero that opportunity.  Now Botterill is left to reshape the roster.

From everything I’ve gathered over the years, Botterill is more than ready for the job and already played a significant role in negotiating contracts and trades under Shero.

But if that was the case and the Penguins weren’t happy with the direction Shero was taking the franchise, are they really going to give Botterill the authority to execute the next chapter of Shero’s vision?

As I’ve said many times in this space, change for the sake of change doesn’t increase your odds of winning a Stanley Cup.

In Part 2, we’ll look at Mario Lemieux and Ron Burkle in depth to understand why the Shero firing really happened.



20 thoughts on “The Rise and Fall of Ray Shero’s Pittsburgh Penguins: Part 1”

  1. Another day and no Part 2…… Guessing that the Dynamic Duo (Burkle & Moehouse) are a tad displeased…. Might be time to drag the Yough in search of a missing hockey writer…..


  2. Where’s part 2? I mean here we are 12 days after part 1 was posted and nothing… Surely you don’t need more time to evaluate what has already happened unless you’re trying to do a little less of a hack job.. Ya keeping Maatta – an Olympian no doubt- in the NHL instead of Juniors was a huge mistake, smh.. You then make the valid point about his ELC sliding another year, only to follow it up with his 2nd contract is going to be decided based on stats. He had 29 points for God Sake it’s not like he just tore the NHL up. Bringing Maatta up had to happen for the sake of the Pouliot, Dumoulin, Samuelsson, and Harrington to at least see that it is possible for young D to make the jump via the Pens. Lets be realistic here… Shero had final say in his contract. In 2013 he put his chips all in and Bylsma was out coached in the ECF. Ownership wanted Bylsma fired and what did Shero do? He extended him instead. So after this year when another Bylsma team looked pathetic in the post season and they kept players like Sill- hurt most of the 2nd half, but I think he was ready come playoff time- and Payerl or PL3 in the AHL when they clearly needed some muscle something needed done. Sure firing Bylsma was more logical, but Shero hasn’t made a trade that didn’t cost the Pens a good portion of their future in a long time. It was his ripping off Joe N that opened a lot of eyes I feel. This organization needs a new GM who is going to clear house with the scouts too. Botterill might be GM ready but unless he’s willing to fire those in the scouting department he will remain asst GM or be looking for employment elsewhere. Bylsma staying in this city to coach next year isn’t going to sell tix I can guarantee you that. While Shero did a lot for this organization sports is a ” what have you done for me lately” business and based on post-season results the GM and coach have both failed miserably. Especially when they have 2 of the top centers in hockey in their primes.

  3. There were multiple failure points in drafting, developing, and team chemistry: all issues that point to the GM. The Pens would not draft Europeans for the most part, and would ignore top forward talent in favor of Puck Moving Dmen. The apologists for the GM would say that, hey, just trade the PMDs like Goligoski. Imagine saying that to one of the newly drafted PMDs. I bet he would take it well. Plus you can bet Shero’s fleecing of Dallas put other GMs on notice.

    Did anything good come out of the Baby Pens? Simon Despres, Ben Lovejoy, Brian Strait, et. al. didn’t seem to progress in the AHL. Legions of scrappy, undersized forwards with stone hands were not going to help much beyond a few games. Jury’s still out on Bortuzzo, who needs to get stronger.

    Team chemistry is always a delicate thing with Superstars. An elite Dman like Sergei Zubov couldn’t play with Lemieux, and had to be traded for an inferior player. Likewise with Naslund. Imagine you’re a young up and coming Dman, trying to adjust to the speed of the game, remembering what your coaches told you, and you come off the ice to be harangued by Malkin or Crosby or Letang for fanning on the absurd backhand pass they sent your way while falling down, right while you were trying to make sure Hossa wasn’t sneaking behind you looking for a breakaway.

    If your coaches and veteran players don’t come to your support, maybe next time you take a risk along with the superstars, end up getting burned, reamed out by the coach, and still yelled at by Crosby, et. al. Your confidence is shaken, your coach shakes his head, and maybe you start wondering if the NHL is right for you. Next thing you know, you’re back in the AHL or traded for a 5th rounder.

  4. Great article, but …. As for the probability of a team winning the SC I don’t see any weighting/variable based on seeding (ie, performance over a full regular season). The Hawks, Bruins and Red Wings (and yup, even the Pens for awhile there) have all made the SC finals more than once within a slim time window. What we are talking about here is not a ‘good’ team, whatever that means, but what is to be expected of a superior elite team–a top 4 overall seed perhaps. Anyway, I don’t think this actual result would hold up within a blind probability model. That is, we’re not talking about the flip of a coin here but variables that require some significant front end weighting based on regular season performance.

    Also, not sure what to make of the Maata thrown in stuff at the end here. Even with his late season leveling off, I would think most observers would not question the value of playing him this year (as one of the top rookies of the entire league). You don’t want to trigger a contract too early for a young player who may not be major contributor or nhl ready, but m is clearly both of those things and he significantly improved the quality of the pens play this year (while they are clearly within the Sid Geno prime time let’s get it done wheelhouse). Anyway, great stuff overall, especially in terms of appreciating what RS accomplished–

  5. Great article Mike. I agree with almost every point.

    I agree that a change in the status quo might have been needed, but I do think the Shero firing was over the top and will be something the organization might regret down the road.

    Shero’s trades have been top notch for the most part (Hossa and Duper, Staal) and even the ones that didn’t quite work out were worth the gamble (Ignila). Seems every fan is pointing to the draft now, but didn’t they want the Pens to go for broke and trade away late 1st round picks to win now? I think it was certainly worth it and as they say, hindsight is 20/20.

    The last five years have been a disappointment sure, but if you look closely 1) they didn’t have Malkin or Crosby against Tampa 2) Got beat by two hot goalies in the playoffs (Halak and Lundquist) 3) A first round flameout against their bitter rival 4) A conference finals appearance where they got outplayed. Not great, but not the dire straight most fans would imagine.

    Change for the sake of change doesn’t always work, and I hope I’m wrong but I do think they jumped the gun on the Shero firing.

  6. One thing i’d like to add with regard to the draft. It’s not about where you get to pick in the 1st round. Take a look around the league at some of the top players and you’d be surprised to see that a good amount of them were picked in later rounds. Shero wasn’t handicapped by picking late in the first round.

    Now, it could very well be that the best player available in their draft slot for their system was typically a puck moving defenseman and they might have been reaching in a given round by taking a forward just for the sake of taking a forward. I didn’t pay attention to the drafts in real time so I’ll leave that the NHL draftniks to argue.

    • Draft position is actually a very big factor. If you break down historical results, there’s a significant drop after the 3rd pick, the 6th pick, and the end of the first round.

      Thanks for reading and commenting though.

  7. I agree with Dave’s earlier comment. There are a lot of numbers and probabilities in this post, but you don’t need stats to see how stale, emotionless, and soft this team has become. Just open your eyes and look how they performed in these two playoff rounds.

    I hope Part 2 makes an effort to include these factors that can’t easily be quantified.

    Also: “Burkle went on to say that it wasn’t just a Game 7 loss to the Rangers that cost Shero his job, but the results of the entire season — a season in which they coasted to a division title and 109 points, the most in over 20 years, despite over 500 man-games lost to injury.”

    That’s quite a mischaracterization. He said it was the results of the past 5 years, plus the current subpar composition of the roster, that cost Shero his job. Twisting someone’s words to prove your point weakens the overall argument.

  8. I think the bottom line is that this roster got less talented and more soft every year since the Cup win. The message and tone from the top down appears stale. It’s not about the odds of winning the Cup every year. It’s about the compete level and effort, it’s about coming out and playing completely flat in the playoffs more often than not and then when they actually do play with effort it’s only for small stretches of a game. It took until Game 5 in Columbus before the team bothered to play a 60 minute game. And this is years-long trend at this point. I don’t mind losing as long as the Pens leave it all out of the ice, which they haven’t in some time. I don’t care what the shot totals say, in games 5-7 in the Rangers series the team never played with any intensity until inside of 10 minutes of the 3rd period. You just can’t do that and expect to win. And it had become a trend. Your odds of a Cup win drastically decrease when your team doesn’t consistently show up to compete. That’s the bottom line. It’s not so much about winning as it is putting in a 100% effort to maximize your chances……which this team has not done for some time.

    Then there’s issue that Lemieux and Burkle alluded to…….spending to the cap just to spend. No GM in the league would have offered a 3 year deal to Craig Adams or the deal he handed Scuderi. He should have known Scuderi was a complete mismatch for Dan’s system. There’s no doubt he overspent on the Letang deal.

    There’s the issue of allowing promising young players like Despres/Bortuzzo to rot in WBS so guys like Orpik and Scuderi can be used as human pylons by the opposition. Dressing Bennett for 21 games so Adams can play. On no other team would Adams be an NHL player anymore. I don’t care the Red Wings do it, in a kid is ready to play in the NHL there’s no reason to keep him buried in WBS for 5 years. They know how to play hockey at this point. Some kids need more development than others but there’s no reason to keep a kid who’s ready in the AHL because “that’s what we do”. You need to have some flexibility in your system.

    That’s my opinion anyway.

  9. Nice article. I’d like to see a breakdown of other teams drafted players in stats during the same time to get a better perspective on the draft record.

    The Penblog piece was nice, but it isn’t a true comparison. The Pens during those 8 years of Craig Patrick time were terrible, and just looking for cheap bodies. Out of the Craig Patrick list, only Petersen and Endicott bounced around a bit with other teams before flaming out. TomK was let go and bounced around a bit too. Malone, Talbot, and Armstrong are probably the only names on that list that had a semi-successful NHL career after the Penguins, with Talbot only one still playing. The rest never got a sniff from another team because they barely deserved to be in the NHL….except on a cheap, cash strapped Pens team.

Comments are closed.