We knew Penguins general manager Ray Shero was good at his job long before his terrific signings of free-agent defensemen Paul Martin and Zbynek Michalek Thursday. The team's run to the Stanley Cup final in 2008 and its Cup win in '09 are pretty good proof. But we didn't find out just how great Shero is until after the Chicago Blackhawks won the Cup this spring. The champagne wasn't even dry in Chicago when the Blackhawks traded key players Dustin Byfuglien, Kris Versteeg, Andrew Ladd, Colin Fraser, Ben Eager and Brent Sopel because of NHL salary-cap concerns.
Contrast that to the Penguins who have Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin, Jordan Staal, Brooks Orpik, Kris Letang, Martin, Michalek and Marc-Andre Fleury signed through at least the 2012-13 season. It will be disappointing if they don't win at least one more Cup during that time.
No wonder Shero said Friday morning after doing five-year deals with Martin and Michalek for a total of $45 million: "I slept good last night."
No wonder a lot of Penguins fans have a new slogan: "In Shero We Trust."
Shero is quick to point out it's not just him. He had glowing praise for assistant general manager Jason Botterill, who does the complicated cap arithmetic for him, and former assistant Chuck Fletcher. He also mentioned how many players took less to sign with or stay with the Penguins. He's thankful every night that Crosby set that tone by signing a five-year, $43.5 million contract extension after the '07 season, taking probably $2 million a year less than he could have demanded.
"What? Are we not going to pay Sidney Crosby?" Shero asked. "He'll tell us what he wants us to pay him, and we'll pay it."
Other players followed Crosby's lead. The seven other core guys took less to play here, including Martin and Michalek. Martin turned down, in Shero's words, a "significantly better" offer from another team.
"I think the word is out there about the Pittsburgh Penguins," Shero said.
About their solid ownership of Ron Burkle and Mario Lemieux. They treat players right.
About the new Consol Energy Center, which opens this fall. It's a dandy.
About playing with Crosby. Before he's done, he'll be regarded as one of his sport's all-time great captains.
About the chance to compete for that precious Cup every season.
Certainly, all of that convinced winger Matt Cooke to stay rather than try free agency last week. He might have taken less than anyone. Former Penguins forward Colby Armstrong did a three-year, $9 million deal with Toronto Thursday that made Cooke's new three-year, $5.4 million contract seem like an incredible bargain. Armstrong is four years younger, but there's no way he's a better player.
Deals such as Cooke's go a long way toward explaining why Shero has been such a cap genius.
The Penguins' personnel losses have been relatively minimal considering their success. Ryan Malone left after the '08 season for more money, Rob Scuderi and Hal Gill after '09. Marian Hossa left after '08 because he thought Detroit had a better chance to win the Cup the next season. Ooops. Sergei Gonchar left for Ottawa last week because the Senators offered him a third year in his $16.5 million contract.
Shero's firm stance with Gonchar is another example of why he's been so successful. Gonchar was a popular, productive player here for five seasons. As tempted as Shero might have been to give him a guaranteed third year, he wouldn't move off of two years because Gonchar is 36. That third year could turn out to be a cap crusher if Gonchar doesn't stay healthy.
"To me, it's about contract flexibility," Shero said. "The more flexibility you have, the better. We haven't done any contracts that have turned out to be problems. We haven't had guys who turn out to be untradable. We haven't had to send a guy to the minors making $5 million."
The Blackhawks haven't been quite so shrewd. They gave horrendous deals to now-backup goaltender Cristobal Huet (four years, $22.5 million) and defenseman Brian Campbell (eight years, $56.8 million). Now, they're dumping salary because of it.
You won't catch Shero smirking. He knows how tough it is in the salary-cap era. "We're all going to lose players and we all have to live with it." He also knows a bad contract can happen to any general manager.
Maybe the Martin deal will turn out to be a mistake for the Penguins. Or the Michalek deal.
Probably not, though.
Considering Shero's track record, the chances are a lot greater of Martin and Michalek getting their name on the Cup as Penguins than of one or the other being a free-agent bust.
Ron Cook: firstname.lastname@example.org . Ron Cook can be heard on the "Vinnie and Cook" show weekdays from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. on 93.7 The Fan.