There is a reason NHL general managers are paid somewhere between $2-million and $3-million (all currency U.S.) a year: It’s not a job for the faint of heart.
Consider this: In the eight years Ray Shero served as GM of the Pittsburgh Penguins, he won one Stanley Cup, made it to another Cup final and to one Eastern Conference final. He also drafted players like Jordan Staal (technically anyway), Beau Bennett and Olli Maatta. He traded Alex Goligoski for James Neal and Matt Niskanen.
Shero made the Penguins good enough that there was enough fan support to get the new Consol Energy Center built and run a sellout streak to 335 by last week when the Penguins were eliminated from the playoffs by the New York Rangers. Those sellouts allowed the Penguins to jump from the bottom 15 teams in revenue to the top five and turn what once looked like a bad investment for owners Mario Lemieux and Ron Burkle into a gold mine.
Not too many NHL GMs can put the above on their résumé. Shero’s thanks for this was to be the only man fired Friday when Lemieux and Burkle came looking for scapegoats following yet another Penguins playoff fade. Head coach Dan Bylsma, the subject of reports saying the owners as well as superstars Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin lost faith in him, remains in place pending a review of the Penguins hockey operations by whomever is hired to replace Shero.
The candidates include Paul Fenton, assistant GM of the Nashville Predators, Boston Bruins assistant GM Jim Benning if the Vancouver Canucks don’t get to him first, and Crosby’s agent Pat Brisson. Oh, and Penguins interim GM Jason Botterill is on the list, too.
Not that Lemieux and Burkle were doing Bylsma any favours. All it really means is he will twist in the wind for at least a month without being able to look for another job.
Considering the number of reports of player unhappiness with Bylsma and the players’ reluctance to support the coach when reporters came calling, it is unlikely in the extreme that a new general manager will keep him. So he will probably hit the job market when most of the vacancies are filled, unless he manages to keep the back-channel communications going.
Yet Lemieux and Burkle both told The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette that Bylsma “absolutely” could keep his job under a new GM. Yeah, right, fellas.
Before anyone sheds too many tears for Shero and Bylsma, remember they both have one more year left on their contracts. That’s a nice bit of balm for any wounded feelings.
Not that they will attract much sympathy. “Anyone could win with that lineup,” is the usual response.
The trouble is, having Crosby and Malkin on your roster in a salary-cap league can be a curse as much as a blessing. Two of the best five players in the NHL can eat up a huge swath of cap space – almost 26 per cent for the 2014-15 season, according to CapGeek.com.
Fitting the secondary and depth players around this becomes a migraine. With the best two centres in hockey on your team, a budding young star like Staal is not going to be happy being No. 3. So he forced a trade and there went a good chunk of the depth that brought the 2009 Stanley Cup.
Marc-André Fleury then became strictly a regular-season goalie, leading the way in the playoff flops. But Shero elected to get him a shrink instead of a trade last summer and that became another mark on the ledger against him. Then defenceman Kris Letang was signed to an eight-year contract at $7.2-million per year, which leaves no room to sign Niskanen, the Penguins’ best defenceman in the 2014 playoffs and a pending free agent.
Then there is the business of trading draft picks and prospects at the trade deadline for help like Marian Hossa and Pascal Dupuis. But you start running out of them and by 2014 all you can land is Lee Stempniak and Marcel Goc. At the same time, your farm system is drying up, too.
Shero made some good draft picks from 2010 through this year, such as Maatta, Bennett and Simon Despres. But between 2007 and 2010 there were a few too many Angelo Espositos.
If you manage to win a Cup or three, those decisions don’t matter. Miss like the Penguins did and the owners start looking at the other side of the coin. Like five consecutive playoff exits at the hands of a lower-seeded opponent. Blowing 3-1 series leads twice in four postseason years.
Then, as baseball sage Graig Nettles once said, you go from Cy Young to sayonara.