Next season, Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin will combine for $18.2 million toward the salary cap. Contrast that with what other teams have done with the star players and you can see why the Penguins didn't have the latitude to surround them with a good enough supporting cast.
Ray Shero is a quality individual and good hockey man who will probably stay unemployed for as long as he wants to be. Armed with two years left on his contract, he can afford to be picky, even in a climate where GMs’ heads are rolling at a dizzying rate.
And he deserved to be fired.
Much of this is about perspective, though. In the time that Shero has been in Pittsburgh, the Penguins have won a Stanley Cup, appeared in a Stanley Cup final and advanced to the Eastern Conference final. He has provided the Penguins ownership with 46 home playoff dates, presided over two (likely three) Hart Trophy winners, three scoring champions, one Rocket Richard winner, one Calder winner and, more importantly, one Jack Adams winner in coach Dan Bylsma in 2011 and a GM of the year in Shero for his efforts last season.
Wow, if the front office in, say, Toronto, could ever accomplish something like that people would walk around with tin foil Stanley Cups welded to their heads and there would be a victory rally for the team at City Hall after every season. (In the time Shero has been with Pittsburgh, the powerful Maple Leaf Sports and Entertainment has had three, yes three, home playoff dates.)
But this is Pittsburgh, where fans actually demand a winner and look at the heart of the team and expect to see one. When both Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin are healthy, they’re arguably the two best players in the world. They’re certainly paid like it and, at times, they produce like it. But keeping them happy is what it’s all about in Pittsburgh, much of which has led to this situation in the first place.
For the past half decade, Shero has done a masterful job of juggling this roster around Crosby and Malkin, but somewhere along the line, his ability to provide this organization with the depth it needs was his major undoing. Part of that has to do with scouting and drafting and part of it has to do with the fact that Shero ran out of commodities to trade to bolster the roster. That’s why guys like Marcel Goc, Lee Stempniak and Taylor Pyatt were coming in instead of guys like Bill Guerin, Marian Hossa and Jarome Iginla. (It also did not help that the Penguins, from game to game, never knew which Marc-Andre Fleury would show up for duty.)
And this goes back to Messrs. Crosby and Malkin. One of the major reasons why Shero was not able to supplement the roster is that he chose to devote a combined $17.4 million on long-term deals in cap space to these two players, a figure that goes up to $18.2 million when Malkin’s contract extension kicks in next season. That’s by far the highest in the league for any team’s top two-paid players, followed by Ryan Getzlaf-Corey Perry in Anaheim ($16.9 million) and Alexander Ovechkin-Nicklas Backstrom in Washington ($16.2 million).
Contrast that with what the Chicago Blackhawks did with Patrick Kane and Jonathan Toews. Their cap space is a mind-boggling combined $12.6 million. Anze Kopitar and Drew Doughty in Los Angeles take up just $13.8 million, Zach Parise and Ryan Suter in Minnesota account for $14.7 million. Patrice Bergeron and Zdeno Chara in Boston take up just $13.4 million between them and Daniel and Henrik Sedin in Vancouver just $14 million.
These are not the 1990s anymore where former Penguins Howard Baldwin could promise Mario Lemieux millions of dollars he didn’t have, then have Mario be given the keys to the kingdom instead of being paid. This is a salary cap era and unless you can convince your star players to take less money in exchange for a better chance at multiple Stanley Cups, you’re not going to be successful. During the second-round series against the New York Rangers, Crosby was a target for abuse. Say what you want about the dearly departed Matt Cooke, but he would have likely done what the NHL so often refuses to do and that is to make players pay for going after the star players in the NHL.
And some of this has to come down to Crosby and Malkin. Crosby had one goal – one goal! – in the entire playoffs and claims he wasn’t playing with an injury. That’s unacceptable. But for too long Crosby and Malkin have been playing with performers who simply aren’t good enough to play with them or don’t have enough grit to protect them.
And that’s a major reason why Ray Shero is looking for work today.