Bob Smizik: Who is Pittsburgh’s best GM?

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Earlier this month, readers were asked to select who they felt was the best coach/manager in Pittsburgh from the field of Dan Bylsma, Jamie Dixon, Clint Hurdle and Mike Tomlin.

The next natural progression is general manager, which makes this the topic for today: Who is Pittsburgh’s best general manager?

The field will be limited to three: Kevin Colbert of the Steelers, Neal Huntington of the Pirates and Ray Shero of the Penguins. General managers are basically roster builders and there is no comparable position in college sports, which means Steve Pederson, the Pitt athletic director, will not be included in this discussion -- much, no doubt, to the dismay of his many critics.

There are no set parameters for evaluating a general manager. Obviously, consistently putting a good team on the field is a primary yardstick but not necessarily the fairest. Circumstances also dictate success, as will be noted in discussing the three men.

Colbert: Not many GMs in the NFL can match the level of success achieved by Colbert. He was named the Steelers director of football operations shortly after the 1999 season when Tom Donahoe and coach Bill Cowher were locked in a power struggle that turned so ugly the Rooney family had to act. Although he lacked a glittering resume, Colbert quickly showed he was the right man for the job with astute roster building.

The Steelers were in the midst of their darkest time of the past 25 years when Colbert took over -- three straight non-playoff seasons. With consistently strong drafts, he soon helped rebuild the team to the point the Steelers were 15-1 in 2004 and Super Bowl champs in 2005 and 2008. They also went to the Super Bowl in 2010. Although the Steelers don’t often go after free agents, Colbert made three brilliant signings -- James Farrior, Jeff Hartings and Ryan Clark.

That impressive record, however, has been dimmed by more recent less successful drafts, two consecutive 8-8 seasons and salary-cap issues that have hamstrung the team in adding free agents. In fairness, NFL teams rarely have as long a run of success as the Steelers did from 2004-11.

Huntington: His overall record pales significantly compared to those of Colbert and Shero. But neither of those men stepped into the mess Huntington inherited. He was named to succeed Dave Littlefield in September 2007 and took over a franchise that not only had a losing tradition dating back to 1993 but a farm system that was abysmal. Everyone knew it would take a while for the Pirates to come back, although not many expected five more losing seasons.

Huntington basically traded away the team he inherited. Every one of the eight position players who would have been considered starters when he took over were gone by the end of the 2009 season. He took a heap of criticism for those deals but the truth was they had to be made. Although what he had to trade was overrated by fans of the team, he did not distinguish himself with his return.

But his work progressed as the years went by. More recently his player personnel moves on all fronts have been mostly good to excellent. On top of that, through smart drafting, aided by high picks, he has built the Pirates farm system into what most experts agree is the best in MLB. Coming off the team’s first winning season in 21 years, the future looks bright for Huntington and the Pirates.

Shero: As far as finishes were concerned, the case could be made Shero stepped into a worse situation than Huntington. In the four seasons before he was named GM (May 2006), the Penguins finished 13th, 14th, 15th and 15th in the 15-team Eastern Conference. However -- and this is a huge however -- he took over a team that had Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin under contract.

It was the presence of those two superstars, along with goalie Marc Andre-Fleury, more than anything Shero did, that propelled the Penguins to the Stanley Cup final in 2008 and to the championship in 2009.

Shero’s draft classes have not added much to the Penguins success, with the notable exception of Jordan Staal, but his trades have been astonishingly successful. He added Pascal Dupuis (an apparent throw-in along with Marian Hossa in 2008), Chris Kunitz in 2009 and James Neal and Matt Niskanen in 2011 without giving away anything significant. Last season he acquired Jussi Jokinen, another deal where little was lost that has worked out well. His trades have kept the Penguins among the most successful NHL franchises and they are among the favorites to win the Cup in 2014.

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