Molinari: Pens GM Shero has to reverse failures

GM will have to determine what needs to be fixed and how to fix it after 3 unanticipated departures in a row from the postseason



Patience is the most precious quality any NHL general manager can have.

It prevents him from trading prospects who blossom into stars. From making quick-fix personnel moves that sabotage rebuilding programs. From gutting his depth chart after hitting a speed bump of disappointment.

The only thing nearly as dangerous as a lack of patience, it seems, is having too much of it.

Overreacting to a spasm of adversity is wrong, but so is failing to act when a pattern of failure develops.

Pro sports are a bottom-line business and after losing three consecutive playoff series to lower-seeded opponents, Penguins general manager Ray Shero has an obligation to seriously consider making significant changes to his team, and how it is run.

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Not just go though the routine, we'll-assess-every-aspect-of-our-operation review that is a staple of every offseason, but to painstakingly analyze who/what is responsible for this string of early eliminations, and to decide how best to correct the problems he turns up.

That doesn't mean Shero has to dismantle his club between now and whenever the next season begins -- remember, there have been no serious negotiations to replace the collective bargaining agreement between the league and its players that expires in September -- but the past three springs make it clear there's a need for more than the usual tweaking and fine-tuning.

He also must determine whether to stick with his strong-down-the-middle approach to team-building -- hardly an unusual or outdated notion -- and whether he can realistically expect to re-sign his top three centers over the next couple of years.

The Penguins have $21.4 million in salary-cap space tied up in Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin and Jordan Staal, and all stand to make more on their next deals. (Crosby and Staal have one year left, Malkin two).

Even if all three would opt against exploring unrestricted free agency, which is far from certain, Shero might conclude he doesn't have the cap space needed to retain all three. If so, deciding which to trade -- and what to seek in return -- might be the most important decision of his tenure as GM.

Uncertainty about what the labor landscape will look like the next time the Penguins play, coupled with the limited number of his own players who are about to become free agents and the meager talent available in free agency, should dissuade Shero from being particularly aggressive this summer.

He has, for the most part, done an effective job at plugging lineup holes via free agency, but hasn't gotten much of a return on the $25 million, five-year investment he made in defenseman Paul Martin in 2010. Zbynek Michalek, who got a $20 million, five-year deal at the same time, has performed below expectations much of the time, too.

Both seemed like ideal fits for the Penguins at the time -- Martin was versatile, mobile and a good puck-mover in New Jersey, while Michalek was an accomplished shot-blocker with shutdown credentials in Phoenix -- but neither, especially Martin, has contributed as envisioned.

Unrestricted free agents tend to be paid more than what fair market value might be under other circumstances, but in the salary-cap era, eight-figure errors in judgment are hard to overcome.

The Penguins have a bounty of promising young defensemen such as Simon Despres, Robert Bortuzzo, Joseph Morrow and Scott Harrington, among others, in the pipeline but should be wary of force-feeding the NHL to most at this stage of their careers.

Nonetheless, when a veteran such as Martin is cast in a prominent role and doesn't perform as expected, it affects the entire unit, and Shero must explore his options for revamping his defense this summer.

Shero made a $35 million, seven-year commitment to goalie Marc-Andre Fleury a few summer ago, and Fleury, at age 27, gave the Penguins the best, and most consistent, regular-season performance of his career in 2011-12.

Nonetheless, Fleury, like his team, must be judged by what he does in the playoffs. For the third year in a row it was not very much.

Fleury hardly is the only reason the Penguins lost their series against Philadelphia -- he almost single-handedly won Game 5 for them -- but too many pucks that had to be stopped made it past him.

He proved in 2009 that he's a goaltender with whom the Penguins can win a Stanley Cup; what Fleury has yet to show is that he's a goalie who can win a Cup for them.

Still, when Shero goes shopping for a goalie this summer, it will be for a reliable backup, not a new No. 1.

Shero's most interesting issue in the offseason, though, might be what to do with his coaching staff.

Dan Bylsma has been remarkably successful in the regular season, routinely getting the most -- and then some -- that his players have to give. He has led them to three consecutive finishes with 100 or more points for the first time in franchise history, despite having to cope with the extended absences of key players such as Crosby, Malkin and Kris Letang.

Conversely, since guiding the Penguins to a Cup in 2009, Bylsma has lost three of four series. If he is to be credited for getting his players to overachieve between October and April, he must be held accountable for their playoff letdowns and lapses of discipline, which manifest themselves in everything from bad penalties to blown assignments.

If, as the Penguins insist, their standard of success is winning the Cup, it can't be ignored that they haven't come close to reaching it since a few months after Bylsma took over from Michel Therrien.

Will Shero replace Bylsma? Probably not. And definitely not unless he's convinced he has a successor who would do better.

Shero is not one to act in haste, and appreciates the folly of basing franchise-shaping decisions on a six-game snapshot from one playoff round.

He also has to understand, though, that trends that develop over three years can't be ignored, either.

The past few springs prove that something is wrong with this team.

Shero's job is to determine what. And to fix it before the Penguins begin their next run at a Cup.

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For more on the Penguins, read the Pens Plus blog with Dave Molinari and Shelly Anderson at www.post-gazette.com/plus. Dave Molinari: dmolinari@post-gazette.com and Twitter @molinaripg. First Published April 24, 2012 11:30 PM


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