Wheelin' and Dealin' with Ray Shero

Penguins general manager Ray Shero is the architect of a Stanley Cup championship, but one trade had him skating on thin ice at home.

Ray Shero’s wife, Karen, still hasn’t gotten over something he did in 2002 while he was general manager of the Nashville Predators. He didn’t forget their anniversary or anything like that. Instead, he made a decision that every GM dreads: He sent a popular player packing.

“Tom Fitzgerald was our captain in Nashville, and we traded him at the deadline,” Shero says. “My wife really liked Tom, and she’s still mad at me for that one.”

Shero is able to laugh about the trade now, especially since he hired Fitzgerald as one of his assistants after coming to the Pittsburgh Penguins in 2006. But as the architect of the franchise’s meteoric rise to Stanley Cup glory, Shero has had to make life-altering decisions with the team’s $60-million salary cap budget.

“It’s hard as a manager, because I can’t exactly be buddy-buddy with these guys, but it’s hard not to grow to really like a person and his family. As soon as you make that phone call to a player that’s been moved, someone’s life has changed. And not only them—but their family, too,” Shero says.

Pittsburgh Magazine recently sat down with Shero to talk about tough phone calls, trade rumors and the never-ending question: wingers for Sidney Crosby.

First off, let’s tackle a rumor that refuses to die: Has Sid or any other player ever come to you and said, “You need to upgrade my linemates.”

Never once. And it’ll never happen. No. 1, Sidney’s not that type of person. I read and hear all the things about wingers and all that stuff, and you know, going out and getting a 40-goal winger would be great, but that’s going to cost you. With the salary-cap structure, you’re going to have a hole somewhere. No team has it all. It’s not possible.

You made a big decision in 2009: firing coach Michel Therrien mid-season and appointing a very green coach in Dan Bylsma to take the reigns …

At that point, we were in dire straights, and it was quite a whirlwind for Dan. Funny story: In Dan’s first game behind the bench, we lost in a shootout on Long Island. On the plane home after the game—this is how much of an “interim” coach he was—Dan walked up and gave me a tug on my sleeve and said, “Umm, Ray … Am I coaching practice tomorrow?” I think we all know how that season turned out.

"I say this every year, 'This might be the year we don’t do anything [at the deadline].' But, really, this might be the year we don’t do anything."

Not all the players you bring to Pittsburgh are stars. What do you look for in grinders and role players?

There’s certain criteria we look for in Penguins players. Perfect example is Craig Adams, who was on waivers when we picked him up. He went 82 games last year without a goal, but not once was he taken out of the lineup, and that may be hard to believe. But then he scores two goals in the playoffs. What he brings every night is hard work and character and physical play. Every successful team needs a guy like that. Our identity to people outside of Pittsburgh might be the high-scoring Penguins, but to me we’re a blue-collar team. I want that to be our M.O.

We’ve got these two superstar players in Crosby and Malkin, and maybe if I managed another team I’d build it differently, but the way we’re set up here, we’re looking for character and leadership traits. There might even be better players out there, but maybe they’re not what we’re looking for in a Penguin.

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Photo ©2010 Pittsburgh Penguins/Gregory Shamus   

What’s the most difficult trade you’ve ever had to make?

When we traded [former defenseman] Ryan Whitney in 2009, that was a difficult one because I really liked Ryan as a person. His father is a really great guy, and I still keep in touch with him. When the trade happened, it was bad timing and Ryan’s mom was in the hospital, and I knew that. It was really, really difficult. But that’s the job.

Does the so-called "hometown discount" actually exist? Do players take less money to stay here?

I think in the end, it’s money. How much will a person leave on the table? How much is enough? I can’t answer that, but in Pittsburgh, what we have to offer is good ownership who spends to the salary cap limit, the players' families are treated first-class here, and our goal is to win Cups.

Take [defensemen] Zbynek Michalek and Paul Martin, who we signed this summer. They had numerous other places they could’ve gone and they chose Pittsburgh. It starts with guys like Crosby, who take less than they can get to stay here. Brooks Orpik did the same thing; Jordan Staal, Kris Letang. Every player that’s really wanted to stay here we’ve been able to retain, and it’s worked out pretty well for them and for us.

So, what's going to happen at the trade deadline this year?

A lot of the times it’s gone down to the final minute of the deadline to make a deal. I say this every year, “This might be the year we don’t do anything.” But, really, this might be the year we don’t do anything. And just because you make a move doesn’t mean it’s going to work out. Last year with [Alexei] Ponikarovski, it didn’t work out.

Why do you think Ponikarovski didn't work out?

He got off to a really good start with us, then he hit a rut and really started pressuring himself to score. He thought he had to score goals, which really wasn’t the case. He just had to be a second or third line player. At the end of the day, I can live with what we gave up for him. That’s sports.

Do other GMs ever take the Internet trade rumors seriously?

Not really. Before the 2008 draft, there was a story going around that we had a deal going with L.A. to trade Evgeni Malkin. And I’d never, ever talked with their GM, Dean Lombardi, about that. So it was funny because I got a call the day before the draft from Dean saying, “Ray, obviously, we’re supposed to be talking about Malkin. Should I be calling you?” [Laughing] I said, “Nope, you shouldn’t be calling me.” That’s exactly how far that went.

Seems as if someone always has you trading away Malkin.

Well if that ever happened, we’re not going to get the best player in the deal. We’ve already got the best player. This summer, when we were kicking around the idea of Geno playing winger, I texted him about it. He was somewhere in Europe at the time, but he texted me right back. I didn’t know what he was going to say, like, “Are you guys nuts? I want out of here. I’m a center!” But the first thing he replied was, “What does coach think?” He’s a great kid and a great teammate. When someone says something about Evgeni, I mean *points up to the rafters at CONSOL Energy Center*, there’s the Stanley Cup banner.”

"What are they gonna do, call their mom? This is hockey."

What are your thoughts on these disputed mega-long-term contacts that players like Kovalchuck have signed? Would you consider giving one to Crosby before his deal expires in two years?

If you sign a guy for 12 or 15 years and you think you have him forever, well let’s be honest, if he doesn’t like the way the team’s run or he doesn’t like the ownership and he’s not happy, in today’s game players will come to you and say, “Look, this isn’t working out like I thought,” and then you’re stuck. But if you sign a guy to a five-year contract like Crosby, or anybody else, and you make every attempt to win and you make a commitment with a brand new building like we have, then you’ll have a much better chance to retain that player. So I’m hopeful that Sidney will want to stay here his entire career and retire a Penguin like Mario did.

HBO's "24/7" series revealed that you and coach Bylsma meet to evaluate players' performances on a 1-5 scale. Do players ever get mad about their rating?

I think in that segment [on HBO], Matt Cooke got a two, and then he scored the next night. All I can say is, Cookey must've done a few things right in his career to get a contract from me. It's a reality series—and that's reality. Some guys have a really bad game and they get a one! Tough. What are they gonna do, call their mom? This is hockey. They'll get over it.

Categories: From the Magazine, Penguins