Sanity Prevails: Ray Shero is My Religion, Part IX
June 13, 2013 1 Comment
(Note: I was about to publish an entirely-different article, hedging my bets along with the rest of the Penguins’ Community as we waited for the axe to potentially fall on Coach “Disco” Dan Bylsma and perhaps Goaltender Marc-Andre Fleury. Thank God for Ray Shero, who did the measured, rational thing and extended Disco for an additional two years while publicly supporting Flower. Unlike most of the Penguins’ Community, Showtime did not overreact to a bad series against Boston and an underwhelming showing by Flower against Long Island. For the record: Peter Chiarelli, GM of the Bruins, did the exact same thing in 2010, and his team has since gone to the Cup Final twice in three years. Consistency is Victory.)
On Wednesday, Penguins GM/Executive Vice President Ray “Showtime” Shero met with the assembled media to discuss the 2013 season, as well as the team’s plans going forward. Given the disappointing fashion in which the team was dispatched in the Eastern Conference Finals, most observers were expecting a number of changes to be announced, possibly beginning a complete overhaul on the team and its culture.
Showtime did what he always does, which was put on an entertaining, intelligent clinic on how to run a National Hockey League team, or in fact run a business. If HBO aired a Ray Shero Press Conference every week in the same time-slot as “Game of Thrones”, ratings would triple. The assembled press could only quake in awe as Showtime directly, expertly, and honestly addressed a diverse horde of topics.
(Note: I cannot state strongly enough that clicking the link above and sitting through Showtime’s full presser with a box of Mike & Ike’s will be the best hour of entertainment you’ll see this week. I was raised Lutheran, but I’m coverting to Sheroism.)
The two most-discussed changes in the media have been the futures of Head Coach Dan Bylsma and Goaltender Marc-Andre Fleury.
There are obviously very few people who know exactly which direction the organization will take regarding Coaching and Goaltending going forward, but we are free to speculate on what decisions Showtime and his staff will be forced to make in the coming days. Ray Shero, Best GM in the business, put to rest a summer of speculation by re-upping Disco and making no bones about the organizational decision to support and move forward with Flower. You are misinformed if you do think these decisions have no bearing on re-signing other key Free Agents, namely Geno and Tanger.
(UPDATE 6/13/13 – completely unrelated, but Geno has just agreed to a very palatable eight-year, $76 Million Dollar contract with an AAV of $9.5 Million. Pause for a minute to enjoy the fact that the Penguins will be able to ice Sid and Geno together for the vast majority of their respective careers. Now, consider the fact that Showtime’s decision to extend Disco and back Flower probably had a lot to do with Geno agreeing in principle to an extension over a year before he was eligible to test the UFA market. Money noted, Geno left dollars and the temptation to at least check out other situations on the table because of the first-class culture Showtime has built.)
Here is an overview of the topics Showtime addressed in his presser Wednesday:
Coaching and the Team’s Future
Shero: “I believe we have a great Head Coach in Dan Bylsma…I believe he is the Coach to lead us moving forward…I have faith in his ability to get better moving forward, I think that’s the sign of a great Coach.”
The assembled media seemed to be waiting for the hammer to fall on Disco, as most pundits felt that Coaching was to blame for the Penguins’ disastrous series against Boston. This article presented a balanced take on the Pros and Cons of keeping Disco.
Disco addressed the media on Sunday:
The most striking statement was his endorsement of Flower as the team’s Starting Goaltender going forward.
It was apparent to Disco that Management was at the very least considering a Coaching change, if not aggressively pursuing a replacement. My take is that Disco decided that if we was going to be removed from his position as Coach, he was going to represent himself with the same class and composure that have been hallmarks of his time in Pittsburgh. His allegiance to a struggling player, and the trademark poise in which he presented himself, are the signature traits that have made him so successful as an NHL Coach.
Disco is fiercely loyal, which is one of the reasons why his players love playing for him. He very reluctantly took out Flower against the Islanders, and even then only because all logic dictated that he should. He really had no opportunity to reinsert Flower because TiVo’s play was so exceptional, excluding the Game 2 shellacking against Boston.
He very publicly endorsed Flower as a statement to Ray Shero: if you retain me as Coach, I am sticking with Flower as long as he is on the roster. In a way, Disco helped Showtime make his decision on the team’s identity going forward. The Penguins would either take one more crack at it with the key components of the ’09 Cup team, or begin a complete overhaul one year ahead of schedule.
Starting in 2014-15, this is going to be a very different Penguins team. After Geno and Tanger are presumably extended, the team is going to have four or five players eating up nearly 50% of the available Cap Space. The excellent supporting cast that has been with the team since ’09 – Chris Kunitz, Brooks Orpik, Craig Adams, Pascal Dupuis – will be well into their 30s, and will at some point have to be swapped out for bargain players and those on entry-levels contracts in order to fill out a roster.
The question for Ray Shero was this: should the Penguins take one more run at the Cup with the core of the ’09 team intact, or should the team undergo a total reconstruction?
Showtime clearly wants to take one more swing at it with most of his horses from the ’09 team, and Disco is obviously the man to lead them.
Speaking on the series against Boston, the way in which the Penguins were dispatched suggested to some that Disco did not make the proper coaching adjustments to allow the team to win. This is why geniuses like NBC Sports’ Mike Milbury and NHL Radio analyst Mick Kerr thought Disco should have been removed.
Thankfully, Showtime did what he always does, and took a step away from the Chessboard in the name of objectivity. Firing Disco meant replacing him with one of the retread candidates currently available, and meant starting from scratch rather than continuing to build. Extending Disco was not an act of indecisiveness or a statement that the disappointing Playoff run was acceptable, but an endorsement of a Coach who took his team to the Eastern Conference Final after dominating the Conference in the regular season.
A criticism I have of Disco is that teams have learned how to effectively counter the Penguins’ primary systems. While the Penguins can bulldoze most teams with sheer talent, fast and structured “Counter-Attack” teams such as Long Island and Boston have become adept at disrupting the Penguins’ attack in the Neutral Zone and not allowing the Pens to eat up Possession Time in the Offensive Zone.
Smart Penguins’ fans know exactly the sort of game the Penguins Do Not want to be playing: a sloppy. sluggish game in which the teams spend most of the time stripping the puck from each other between the Blue Lines. That sort of game caters to the strength of the Islanders, who can create breakaways and odd-man rushes with their speed, and the Bruins, who will methodically and patiently crush the life out of a team while they wait for opportunities to present themselves.
As long as Offensive Dynamos such as Sid, Geno, Tanger, and Deal are on the roster, the Penguins will want to Play the Feud, i.e. create openings with their puck movement and generate chances off the rush. For all the roster talent he has been given, Disco has not found a consistent way to dismantle teams that clog the Neutral Zone, especially in the post-season.
My stance has always been that Disco should have been retained as Coach for the 2013-14 season, with the mandate that he needs to overhaul his primary system. Teams of inferior talent that commit to getting in the Penguins’ way – especially during the Playoffs, when pre-2005 Obstruction returns with a vengeance – need to be put in their proper place, which is beneath the Penguins on the food chain. Some kind of alternate set needs to be created that will dismantle teams that try to drag the go-go Penguins into the Neutral Zone gutter.
At the time, I absolutely loved the Trade Deadline additions made by Showtime, especially the addition of Jarome “Sugar” Iginla.
Sugar is one of my all-time favorite players, and since the 2005-06 seasons I had dreamed about seeing him on Sid’s Right Wing. Sadly, even after Sugar was added to the roster, this never came to fruition.
One can argue that Showtime stirred the pot one time too many by adding so many new players at the deadline. After all, the Penguins were rolling without all the extra bodies, and a common criticism is that the team got markedly slower with Sugar, Brenden Morrow, Doug “Crankshaft” Murray, and Jussi “Joker” Jokinen grafted into the lineup.
There is some truth to this, as the additions of Sugar, Joker, et al. forced Disco to sit down quicker players such as Tyler Kennedy, Beau Bennett, Joe Vitale, and Simon Despres. In fact, not enough credit has been given to Disco for managing all of these new personalities and the quality problems their additions represented. It must have been tough telling veteran regulars and ’09 Cup Champions like TK and Mark Eaton that they had to sit to accommodate the new additions.
But I am fully on Showtime’s side on this one. Showtime gave Disco every advantage in personnel that he possibly could. I don’t think adding these high-quality players was the issue so much as how they were used.
I obviously think Disco should have at least tried Jarome Iginla on Sid’s line. I hated that a Hall of Fame Right Winger was forced to play Left Wing, and that he was forced to do much of the Puck Retrieval that Geno and Dealer generally do not. Hopefully, Sugar will re-sign in Pittsburgh, and with a full Training Camp and 82-game season on his side be given a lengthy audition as Sid’s finisher.
As for the other additions: while I have tremendous respect for him, I think Brenden Morrow is strictly a fourth-liner at this stage of his career, and that more-effective players such as Beau Bennett were scratched to accommodate him. I think Crank is effective when his minutes are protected, but that he was frequently exposed five-on-five. I love the physicality Crank adds, but he is obviously not a good fit for Disco’s Dual Puck Retrieval system. I think Joker is an excellent utility player, not to mention Top-6 Center insurance against an injury to Sid or Geno, and I am very pleased that he is on the roster for 2013-14 with Carolina picking up much of his Cap Salary. Still, there were spots when a better checker and quicker skater like Joe Vitale was a better fit, particularly when a 4th-liner was needed.
Having said my peace, I am obviously not at practice every day, and I am certainly no NHL Head Coach. My point is that if I was asked to assign blame between how the Roster was constructed versus how the players were used, I have to go with the latter.
As I wrote above, the team will have a drastically different look after Geno’s and presumably Tanger’s extensions kick in. Geno will probably make $9-$10 million against the Cap annually, while Tanger could fall anywhere between $6-$8 million, depending on how much he wants to work with the team. No matter what happens, there is not going to be room for a lot of mid-level veterans, which is one of the reasons Showtime has been hoarding puck-moving Defensemen and inexpensive Goaltenders.
In the near future, Showtime will likely not be in a situation to load up at the Trade Deadline like he did in 2013. The vocal minority who want to knock on Showtime for going all-in while he had the Cap Space obviously have no understanding of the economics of the League or the long-term picture. At least for 2013-14 and 2014-15, the team is going to be eking by on a strict budget, and Showtime will have another unique challenge in front of him: Ballin’ on a Budget.
“I am not getting rid of Marc-Andre Fleury…It’s difficult to replace 40 Wins a year…I can’t replace that. I don’t believe I can go out and get someone like that. We talk about the Playoffs…and that is certainly an area he needs to improve on, in Concentration and Belief, and needs to get back to where he was in ’08 and ’09. There are certain steps he needs to take to get there, and I believe he can do that…there are 14 teams that don’t make the Playoffs, and he wins 40 games a year…I think this year he was 3rd in the League in Wins with 23, I believe…the faith I have in Marc-Andre Fleury hasn’t waned, nor has it from Dan (Bylsma)…if you look back at the last 4,3,2 years, no one has Won more games than Marc-Andre Fleury.”
– “Showtime” Ray Shero on Flower during his 6/12/13 Media Availability, right around the 25:30 Mark
For the record, I am a huge Flower apologist. I continue to think he is an excellent NHL Goaltender, and that he would look much more impressive if he played behind a defense-first team as he did under Mike Therrien and in 2010-11 (the year both Sid and Geno were out with injuries). Having noted all of this, I cannot ignore reality, which is that Flower has gotten absolutely torched the past two post-seasons.
Given how tight the Penguins’ Cap situation looks to be, there is a clamor to use a Compliance Buy-Out on Flower and move forward with TiVo and one of Eric Hartzell, Brad Thiessen, or Jeff Zatkoff. That makes a little sense on some levels, especially given how TiVo played in the 2013 Playoffs.
But I cannot un-see this. As I wrote in my latest defense of Flower, by almost any statistical measure he ranks somewhere between #7 and #15 among NHL Goaltenders, and that analysis gives no weight to Wins. Unless you think the Penguins are going to acquire Hank Lundqvist or Pekka Rinne or unless you think Hartzell or Thiessen are ready to step in and completely dominate, you are probably not going to upgrade on Flower.
Showtime agrees with this, and said as much in his presser. The common observer wants to take a fistful of cringe-worthy moments and ignore all of the positive things Flower has done for the team. To cite one example, it’s worth repeating that Flower was Vezina-worthy in 2010-11, which has mostly been forgotten because Tim Thomas and Roberto Luongo had generational seasons while the punchless Pens were bounced in the 1st Round by Tampa Bay.
As I have written before, many hockey observers look at the very best goaltenders and assume that absolutely-stellar play is the standard. Flyers’ Owner Ed Snider did this when he watched Tim Thomas have the best season an NHL Goaltender has ever had, then demanded that his Manager “go get one of those,” meaning an all-world goalie having his career season. A fresher example would be Bruins’ Goaltender Tuukka Rask, who has been exceptional in the 2013 Playoffs but not without some prior struggles. Until fairly recently, Rask was seen as the weak link in a forthcoming Bruins dynasty. How crazy does that sound to you, as a Penguins’ fan outside the NESN bubble?
To play Devil’s Advocate, let’s say the Penguins, through Buyout or Trade, removed the entirety of Flower’s $5 Million Cap Hit in the interest of acquiring a new Starting Goaltender. Do you think Roberto Luongo, Mike Smith, Ryan Miller, or Jonas Hiller (to name a few) are clear upgrades on Flower? And what is the cost in terms of dollars and years that it would take to bring in a different Starting Goaltender?
Tomas Vokoun is approaching 36 years old. He has had a very underrated career, and tacked a good 2013 Playoff run onto his resume. But he is not the long-term solution in Pittsburgh. Opinions vary on Hartzell, Thiessen, and Zatkoff, but none would seem to be a clear upgrade on Flower entering 2013.
Showtime has more than enough on his plate this summer between extensions for Geno and Tanger, as well as the large list of UFAs and RFAs he has to navigate. With both of his goaltenders under contract and the true Cap Crunch not coming until 2014-15, perhaps it’s best for everyone to take a breath and embrace a tandem that carried the team to the Eastern Conference Finals, rather than obsess over what happened against Boston.
The option to use a Compliance Buyout on Flower will remain following the 2013-14 season. The Salary Cap crunch will not be severe until 2014-15, and in my view it’s worth seeing if a proper Goaltending Coach (sorry, Gilles), a focused summer of training, and the stark reality of life on a different team will propel Flower to a higher level of play. If he falters again, Showtime can re-consider his options, knowing the team still has TiVo and the myriad options stashed at Wilkes-Barre for 2013-14.
Pending Unrestricted Free Agents/Restricted Free Agents (the Short Version)
Without any insider insight into Showtime’s list of off-season priorities, here is an overview:
1) Extension for Evgeni Malkin
2) Extension for Kris Letang
3) Re-Sign Pascal Dupuis
4) If possible, Re-Sign Matt Cooke and Jarome Iginla (in some order)
5) Tender and Trade Restricted Free Agent Tyler Kennedy, who unfortunately no longer fits into the team’s pay structure
6) Pursue Re-Signing Craig Adams, Brenden Morrow, and Doug Murray, depending on cost and changes to coaching, if any
7) Tender RFA D Robert Bortuzzo and G Eric Hartzell
I am completely confident Geno’s deal will get done, and Showtime dismissed it as mostly a non-issue. It’s been stated repeatedly that Showtime has the green light to spend whatever is necessary to retain Geno. I think a full eight-year deal, with a Cap Hit somewhere between $9-$10 Million, gets Geno locked-up. The slight bump in Geno’s Cap Hit means that the team cuts coupons for a few years with supporting players until the Cap rises again (in line with League Revenues) in 2015-16 or 2016-17.
Tanger is a dicier issue. If his representatives ask for the moon, such as $8 Million per year against the Cap, Showtime will be forced to ask himself if a less-expensive alternative cannot be found. Opinions vary on Tanger, particularly regarding some of his egregious turnovers and Defensive Zone miscues, but his raw statistics put him solidly in the $6-$8 Million per year range.
Showtime has stated repeatedly that he wants to retain Tanger, but he will not give him unlimited dollars as with Geno. My take is that doubling his current Cap Hit of $3.5 Million up to $7 Million per year would be acceptable for all parties involved. Hopefully, Tanger will take a cue from his teammates and leave a little on the table in the interest of filling out the roster.
Similarly, doubling Duper’s current Cap Salary, taking him up from $1.5 Million annually to $3 Million annually, seems like something the 34-year old Family Guy would accept. However, given the paper-thin UFA market, it’s possible some team blows Duper’s doors off with an offer he simply cannot refuse. What if some team offers to triple his current salary? There are certainly worse players (cough Ville Leino cough) earning $4.5 Million per season against the Cap. Wouldn’t he have to take that?
I believe Matt Cooke is going to be priced out of Pittsburgh. Some team is going to offer Cookie a four-year, $16 Million Dollar deal that Pittsburgh will not be able to match. Cookie is an excellent fit for Coach Disco’s system, but he could immediately become an overpaid 33-year old checking winger. That is a mistake Showtime cannot or will not make.
However, Sugar seems very interested in returning, having already put his house in Calgary on the market. He is chummy with Mario, which is never a bad thing. Given the amount of money he has already made and given that he is now a complimentary player – albeit an excellent one – I can see a situation in which he takes a Cap-friendly contract to return. We may even see him on Sid’s Right Wing, especially if someone hands Duper a blank check.
Needing a raise on his already-disproportionate $2 Million Cap Salary, Tyler Kennedy looks to be moving on. Like Cookie, he is a Disco favorite, and he has excelled in running Disco’s forecheck. But despite flashes, he has cannot quite achieve the consistency on offense needed to justify his salary. Perhaps a reunion with his old roommate Jordan Staal in Carolina would be a beneficial situation for all parties involved.
The third line needs to be rebuilt around Brandon Sutter’s skill-set, ideally with younger, cheaper talent. Depending on who is re-signed, Beau Bennett could be a fit here, or he could be up with either Sid or Geno. Either way, the third line that was such a big part of the ’08 and ’09 Cup runs would appear to be going the way of the dinosaurs.
The team has one more year of Veterans Chris Kunitz, Matt Niskanen, and Brooks Orpik before all of them go UFA in July 2014. The final numbers on the Geno/Tanger extensions will determine the future of these three players in Pittsburgh. With the looming Cap Crunch and all the Defensive help coming up the pipeline (Brian Dumoulin, Scott Harrington, Olli Maatta, and Derek Pouliot), big changes could be taking place on the roster for 2014-15.
The other UFAs will all be secondary in focus. Craig Adams is certainly nice to have around, but the price will have to be right again. Brenden Morrow would have to take a drastic Salary cut to remain in Pittsburgh. Crank may or may not be a good fit for the team, again depending on price and how aggressively other teams pursue him on July 5th.
I think I speak for many Penguins’ fans when I say that I have been on-edge since the Bruins closed us out last Friday. The unforgiving fashion in which the Penguins were bounced was something most of us fans were not prepared for. Coupled with the outcry from NHL Analysts who were almost campaigning for the dismissal of Disco and/or Flower, I think most of us were bracing ourselves for the worst.
Thankfully, the NHL’s Best Manager continues to mind the store. Showtime will not cave to external pressure, and as he pointed out in his press conference, he has access to information that most so-called “experts” do not. If he believes the best course of action is to extend Disco’s contract and to take another shot with Flower and TiVo in net, he can back his decisions from a unique position of authority. As always, Showtime knows best, and he proved it again with Wednesday’s announcements.
Now, onto what will be a challenging and full off-season…