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.