Who is Ray Shero and what does he know about hockey?
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Ray Shero didn't just get a five-year contract when the Penguins hired him as general manager yesterday.
He received -- on the 15th anniversary of their first Stanley Cup championship -- a mandate to restore the Penguins to their place among the NHL's premier franchises.
And all the power he should need to make that happen.
Shero will be the ultimate authority on every aspect of the team's hockey operations. If he's not happy with a player, he can get rid of him. If he doesn't like a coach's work, he can fire him. If he doesn't care for how injuries are treated, he can replace the medical staff.
But Shero, coming off an eight-year apprenticeship as assistant general manager of the Nashville Predators, probably hadn't accepted the offer to succeed Craig Patrick when he settled on the first thing he should do upon taking over: Nothing.
Not right away, at least.
Not until he has had a chance to talk to and observe the people under him. To learn about their work habits, attitudes and ideas. To assess how their philosophies and priorities mesh with his.
"I don't want to come in here with any knee-jerk reactions, any preconceived notions," Shero said. "I just want to evaluate things and take a little time to do that."
Some of those assessments must be completed more quickly than others. The Penguins, for example, must decide by Thursday which junior players drafted in 2004 and which European prospects selected in 2002 or earlier they want to sign. They will surrender the rights to those who do not receive contracts by June 1.
Shero, 43, said he will discuss that issue with assistant general manager Ed Johnston today and will rely heavily on what Johnston and the Penguins' scouts tell him.
"I have to trust their instincts," he said.
Although Penguins CEO Ken Sawyer gave Shero clearance to structure the hockey operation to his own specifications, Shero said he has not decided who merits consideration for the assistant general manager's job or whether he will hire a director of player personnel.
Indications are that ownership will set the Penguins' payroll for 2006-07 in roughly the same range as last season, when it crested around $34 million.
That could change if the club is sold -- something a person with knowledge of the situation said might well happen this summer -- but it's hard to imagine the Penguins flirting with the upper reaches of the league's salary cap.
Shero acknowledged that the Penguins are unlikely to pursue big-ticket free agents this summer, but noted that rosters can be reshaped by various means, including trades and waiver claims.
"There are all different ways to build this team," he said. "We have to look at all of them, not just [unrestricted] free agents."
There are, however, potential complications. At the moment, Shero said, the Penguins have the league maximum of 50 players under contract.
"If someone offers us Daniel Alfredsson for a seventh-round pick, we can't even pick him up," he said. "That doesn't make any sense. I'd like to get that down, clean it up a bit if we can."
Two of those 50, forwards Jani Rita and Niklas Nordgren, have signed to play in Europe next season and the departure of veterans such as defenseman Lyle Odelein should open up a few more spots. It also is likely the Penguins will not try to retain all their restricted free agents.
Those judgments must be made by mid-June. Free agency is scheduled to begin July 1, and Shero said that under the labor agreement negotiated last summer, players cannot be signed from June 15-30.
In an early conversation with Sawyer, Sawyer raised the issue of being "saddled" with a coach he did not pick because the Penguins already had committed to keeping Michel Therrien.
But even though he is a staunch backer of Nashville associate coach Brent Peterson -- a candidate for several coaching vacancies with the Penguins over the past decade -- Shero was adamant yesterday about the merits of retaining Therrien.
"There's been so much change here," he said. "I think we need some stability."
Therrien said recently that he has settled on "three or four" possibilities to join Mike Yeo on his staff, and Shero said that, while the decision will not be unilateral, his coach's preference will carry a lot of weight.
"I will certainly have a hand in that," Shero said. "But at the same time, I want to give the latitude for people to hire people they can work with."
The Penguins have the second choice in the June 24 entry draft, and Shero said it is "ultimately, my decision" about who they will select. Defenseman Erik Johnson is widely regarded as the top prospect, but St. Louis, which has the No. 1 choice, has given no indication about whether it will take him.
Likewise, Shero wouldn't commit on who he'd like to get in the second spot -- "Even if I had a guy, I wouldn't [publicly identify] him" -- or whether he likes one prospect enough to make a serious effort to acquire the Blues' pick.
Building through the draft takes time and, while Shero stressed that the Penguins will use "every available measure" to construct a competitive team, he was adamant that he's not interested in short-term fixes. Instead, he spoke of the importance of vision and patience, and said, "I think I have that."
Shero accepted the Penguins' offer after being heavily courted by Boston. Despite the prestige of working for an Original Six team such as the Bruins -- and the possibility that the Penguins will relocate after the coming season -- he said the job here was simply too attractive to turn down.
"For the openings around the league, this is like a gem, really," Shero said. "I really feel this is the best place for us."
Dave Molinari can be reached at 412-263-1144.