Q: How many seasons should general manager Ray Shero be given to win the Stanley Cup?
Paul Ladd, Chicago
MOLINARI: It would be misguided on ownership's part to make Shero's employment contingent on winning a Stanley Cup by a designated deadline, because there are variables completely outside of a GM's control -- injuries, for example -- that can influence how his team fares in the playoffs.
A GM could assemble a perfectly balanced lineup with no significant flaws that enters the postseason as a consensus choice to earn a Cup, but if, say, his No. 1 goalie blows out a knee midway through the second round, the club's chances of winning a championship probably will take a major hit. And simply having a competent No. 2 goalie in place -- which is something that can reasonably be expected of a GM, and which probably is the most teams can hope for in the salary-cap era -- won't necessarily be enough to get the team past a quality opponent in a best-of-seven series.
A more realistic way to assess the performance of a general manager -- especially one whose team has a high-priced, highly talented core like that of the Penguins -- in the salary-cap era is by whether he is able to, year-in and year-out, cobble together a lineup that has a legitimate chance of contending for a Cup.
Obviously, having guys like Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin and Marc-Andre Fleury is a huge advantage for the Penguins, but paying such players market value, or even a bit below, limits the amount of money Shero has to fill out the rest of his roster.
And while any club wants to have difference-makers on its depth chart, hockey is a team game in which success almost always is the by-product of a team effort. Not every line and defense pairing is created equal, but they all have some degree of importance. If one or two, or even a handful of guys could do it alone, Mario Lemieux wouldn't have needed five seasons to get it into the playoffs for the first time.
The Penguins, as noted countless times in this space and in Post-Gazette stories, do not have a lineup equal to the one that came within two victories of a Stanley Cup this spring. Crosby's production suffers from the lack of a linemate with Marian Hossa's skills, and the Penguins were not able to fully replace the grit lost when guys like Ryam Malone, Jarkko Ruutu and Adam Hall left via free agency.
There also seems to be something of a veteran leadership void, as evidenced by the number of games in which the Penguins have pronounced their effort to be unsatisfactory. That happens to every team a few times over the course of the season, but should not be a recurring issue, as it has been with the Penguins. And it's hard to believe that it would be if older, established players with a little tenure here -- guys like Malone and Ruutu -- were still on the payroll.
That problem with that, of course, is that keeping those guys wasn't a viable option because of the salary cap. Malone got more money and years from Tampa Bay than the Penguins ever would have considered giving him, and Shero's philosophy of not giving most role players contracts longer than two years prompted guys such as Ruutu and Hall to move on.
The thinking here is that Shero's approach to filling out the bottom half of his roster, while obviously causing some short-term problems, is fundamentally sound. Ruutu most certainly would be an asset for the Penguins in 2008-09; whether the same would be true in 2010-11, by which time all the hard miles on him could begin to have an impact on the vigor with which he goes about his work, is another matter. Because the NHL has guaranteed contracts, teams can't afford to make too many personnel mistakes in the salary-cap era, or their ability to put together a competitive team will be further compromised.
Some of Shero's free-agent signings from the past off-season invite second-guessing. Ruslan Fedotenko hasn't been enough of a factor most nights, and Miroslav Satan has not had the impact on Crosby's right side that anyone was hoping for, even though he is on pace for a 27-goal season and is not going about his job much differently than he ever did. Still, with his commitments to the core players already on his payroll, Shero did not have the cap space to pursue an elite winger for Crosby, or to land the best role players on the market.
In a lot of ways, Shero's success -- and ultimately, his profession fate -- likely will be determined by the work done by his pro and amateur scouting staff. If the pro scouts can consistently turn up "sleeper" free agents who have the potential to make a contribution that exceeds their salary demands, it could give Shero a little more latitude to invest in impact players. And if the amateur scouts do a good job of identifying prospects, the Penguins will have a steady source of talent -- and homegrown players almost always are cheaper than those brought in from the outside -- as well as assets that can be used in trades.
A GM who can fill holes in his lineup without doing significant damage to his overall depth chart is a GM who should be able to keep his team among the title contenders on a n annual basis. If Shero can do that, he will be fulfilling any reasonable expectations his bosses could have.