It had been more than two decades since the Penguins searched for a general manager. The organization definitely was out of practice. What's more, the man doing the search, CEO Ken Sawyer, had never done it. It was a daunting task, but one that, at least based on early evidence, appears to have ended in a smashing success.
Ray Shero, dapperly dressed in a white shirt, red-striped tie and dark pin-striped suit, was introduced as Craig Patrick's successor yesterday and made a strong impression.
He came across as bright, organized, well-spoken, poised and appreciative of the opportunity while leaving no doubt in anybody's mind that he had earned this chance. Most of all, he brings a background that makes him eminently qualified to take over a franchise that has been reeling for some five years.
Shero, 43, learned his craft as an assistant general manager at Ottawa and Nashville, two hockey outposts that, like the Penguins, have to watch their dollars. Unlike the Penguins of recent times, those franchises, particularly Ottawa, have achieved NHL success.
At the very least, Shero is a refreshing change from Patrick, who had grown stale on the job. The passion Shero so clearly brought had long left Patrick. Quite properly, though, Shero paid homage to his predecessor, a gesture that might not have been necessary -- considering Patrick had been fired after running the franchise toward the ground.
"I want to thank Craig Patrick," Shero said early in his remarks. "He really established the dynasty here. He won two Stanley Cups and really made this a hockey town."
Mario Lemieux, who Shero also thanked, had something to with that, but recognizing Patrick was a nice touch. Shero, like Patrick, hails from hockey aristocracy. His dad, Fred Shero, was a legendary figure in Philadelphia in coaching the Flyers -- those detested Broad Street Bullies -- to two Stanley Cup championships in the 1970s.
Now Shero has to roll up his sleeves and undo the mess Patrick created, which includes four consecutive last-place finishes in the Atlantic Division. Sure, Sidney Crosby, who seems destined to become the NHL's next great superstar, is a player to build around. So might Evgeni Malkin, who, hopefully, will join the Penguins next season and perhaps give them a player who approaches the star quality of Crosby.
After that, despite a widespread belief the team is thick with young talent, there's not a lot. Goalie Marc-Andre Fleury, dispatched to the Wilkes Barre/Scranton Penguins to get postseason experience in the American Hockey League playoffs, failed to rise to the occasion and was mediocre instead of the hoped-for dominating. Same with defenseman Ryan Whitney, another big hope for the future. He did little to pad his resume with a minus-2 and five points in 11 games.
Perhaps that why Shero repeatedly preached patience.
He talked about having "a vision, a plan and patience."
In discussing the team's talent base, he said, "I am certainly looking forward to the opportunity to work with these young players and give them the support and patience they are going to need in order to get winning hockey back in Pittsburgh again."
Not that he expects another last-place finish.
"My goal is to make the playoffs," he said. "Once you get there, you've got a chance. There's no great proclamation we're going to make the finals next year. But let's be realistic. When we come to training camp in September, we're jacked up. We think we're making the playoffs. If you're not, you're in the wrong business."
Nor will he use economics as an excuse.
"Lots of teams from big cities are playing golf now, and a lot of small cities are playing hockey. For markets like Pittsburgh and Ottawa, this is music to our ears. We have a chance. And this is all we can ask for. It's something to be excited about if you're a fan of the Penguins."
In the months ahead, look for Shero to reinvent the Penguins' front office, which grew stale with Patrick and is badly in need of new thinking. This is one area where he can't hope to match his predecessor. In what was nothing less than a stroke of genius, Patrick brought in two of the greatest minds in NHL history, Badger Bob Johnson and Scotty Bowman, to help with the process that led to two championships.
There's no replicating that incomparable duo, but the Penguins have a man with a vision and the seeming wherewithal to achieve it.
Bob Smizik can be reached at email@example.com or 412-263-1468.