First-year general managers don't often step into as sweet a situation as Ray Shero did when the Penguins hired him in May 2006. Sure, the team was mired in a stretch of four consecutive last-place finishes. But even that was a positive: There was no place to go but up.
It helped that the upward process would be led by Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin and Marc-Andre Fleury, the bounty the team received for all those last-place finishes.
It helped, too, although Shero has yet to acknowledge this in a palpable way, that an experienced coach was on hand in Michel Therrien. Therrien might not have been Shero's choice, but he was the firm hand this one-time country-club franchise needed. In 2006-07, Shero's first season and Therrien first full season, the Penguins made a 47-point improvement, fourth-largest in NHL history. Helping in that improvement was Jordan Staal, Shero's first No. 1 draft choice, who scored 29 goals, more than he had the season before in junior hockey.
Shero and Therrien built on that improvement in the recently completed season by advancing to the Stanley Cup final, where the Penguins lost in six games to the Detroit Red Wings. Essential to that success was the play of right winger Marian Hossa, acquired at the trade deadline by Shero in what might not have been a no-brainer but was close to it. When ownership gives you the go-ahead to trade for the best forward available, you do it.
All of which is to say that while Shero has done little wrong in his two-year run, other than Staal, whose scoring declined last season, and Hossa, who has declared for free agency, he has yet to put his mark on the team.
Beginning today he has his chance. Beginning today we learn what kind of general manager Shero is.
The Penguins' core -- Crosby, Malkin and Fleury, Sergei Gonchar, Ryan Malone, Ryan Whitney and Brooks Orpik -- was in place before Shero arrived. That core is being depleted. Malone is gone, signed by Tampa Bay, and Hossa and Orpik are two more coveted unrestricted free agents available to any team.
It's time for Shero to step up and deliver, time for him to make his mark with the franchise.
He already has made the right move with Malone, a top-six forward who was vital to the team's success but not worth to the Penguins what Tampa Bay paid him -- $31.5 million over seven years. Shero appears to be taking the same prudent course with Hossa and Orpik, offering what he believes them to be worth but refusing to engage in a bidding war.
Shero made small moves yesterday by keeping free agents Pascal Dupuis and Mark Eaton and signing tough guy Eric Godard. He lost backup goalie Ty Conklin and forward Adam Hall. None of those moves figures to impact the team seriously next season.
The team-altering moves are yet to come. If Hossa leaves, that means the team's two best wingers, Malone being the other, will be lost. If Orpik leaves, the team loses its most physical defenseman. No one on the current team is capable of replacing Malone, Hossa or Orpik.
Shero is not in an easy position. Just as he couldn't bid as high as other teams on Malone and likely Hossa and Orpik, he can't go on a wild spending spree to replace them. The franchise is committed to keeping its young core as the heart of the team. That means paying large chunks of money to Crosby, already under a long-term contract; Malkin, who is close to signing a similar deal; Fleury, who will go to arbitration if a long-term deal can't be worked out; and Staal, who will be a restricted free agent after next season.
There are several players available in free agency who could come close to filling the roles of Malone, Hossa and Orpik. That's Shero's calling. He has to find the right guys and, in this salary-cap era, at the right price.
One player Shero should not consider as a replacement forward is Jaromir Jagr, the second-greatest player in Penguins history behind Mario Lemieux. At 36, he likely can still be effective playing beside Crosby or Malkin, although nowhere near the force he once was. But he brings with him an attitude that can be detrimental. He has a history of too often playing only when he wants to play. He is at his worst with strong-willed coaches. He made life miserable for Kevin Constantine, and the possibility exists he'd have trouble with the demanding Therrien.
There is an upside to all of this. The Penguins won't just have a good team next year, they'll be a Stanley Cup contender. Crosby, Malkin, Fleury, Staal, Whitney, Gonchar virtually assure that.
How good that team is and how far it advances in the postseason, though, depends on how good Shero is in the days and weeks ahead.
Bob Smizik can be reached at email@example.com .