Questions to consider, Part II
As the hunt for Ray Shero’s successor as general manager of the Penguins enters its second week, here is another batch of questions to consider:
1. How will the change in GMs affect the Penguins’ appeal to free agents?
During Shero’s tenure as GM, the Penguins picked up a reputation among players as a good place to work.
Part of that, obviously, is because joining the Penguins meant a chance to be teammates with Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin, two of the world’s top talents. Thanks in part to those two, the Penguins have had, at the very least, a puncher’s chance of winning a Stanley Cup almost every year since 2008.
There was more to it than that, however. Shero fostered a player-friendly atmosphere – not to be confused with the country-club atmosphere present at times before he arrived – that made it attractive to guys searching for a new home after their contracts expired.
Everything from staying in nothing but top-shelf hotels to not prodding injured players to return to the lineup before it was medically prudent made an impression on people around the league. (Although allowing Sidney Crosby to play in the next game after taking a wicked blow to the head in the 2011 Winter Classic a few days earlier certainly was a major lapse in judgment by someone.)
And in the salary-cap era, when teams often are limited in how much money they can offer a player they would like to add, those are the kind of things that can sway a decision on where to sign.
Now, it’s possible that Shero’s successor will insist that things such as travel and medical issues, as well as every other facet of the operation, be handled in a manner similar to that Shero did, regardless of cost or short-term repercussions.
Nonetheless, the new GM will need at least a little time to establish a track record for how he runs things, so there likely will be an element of uncertainty in the early weeks and months of his tenure. How much of an impact that will have on the Penguins’ foray into free agency in July is impossible to predict.
Luckily for them, a chance to be teammates with Crosby and Malkin still figures to appeal to at least some players who are hunting for a job.
2. How will the Penguins’ returning players – however many or few of them there are – react to ownership’s publicly stated belief that the team needs an infusion of character to reach its potential?
“Character” is a quality not easily defined and, like beauty, tends to be in the eye of the beholder.
Still, to suggest that the Penguins need more characters players, as co-owner Mario Lemieux did in the wake of Shero’s firing, comes across as a blanket indictment of everyone in that locker room.
“I feel it’s been missing a little bit this year,” Lemieux told Post-Gazette columnist Gene Collier. “Once you get in the playoffs, it’s a long two months, it’s a long journey, and to get to the end you need grit certainly, but you need character to go through adversity, from game to game.”
What guys who never missed a game despite requiring daily medical attention for significant injuries – to say nothing of the ones who played through physical issues so severe they have had to be surgically repaired – honestly feel about having the group’s collective character called into question might never be known, but it seems safe to assume they won’t be pleased about it.
Nor, without any evidence, anecdotal or otherwise, to back up ownership’s slap at them and their teammates, should they be.
3. How much roster turnover will there be this summer, and how will it affect team chemistry?
About a dozen players who spent significant time on the Penguins’ major-league roster in 2013-14 will be unrestricted free agents this summer, and history suggests that the vast majority – if not all of them – will move on.
Who, if anyone, from that group the Penguins attempt to retain will be up to the next GM, of course, but with just 14 players who seem certain to be on the NHL roster under contract and only about $15 million or $16 million of cap space left, the Penguins’ lineup stands to have a significantly different look in the fall.
Shero’s successor also will have to determine whether to keep the Penguins’ core intact, or whether trading a high-profile player or two – Crosby and Malkin are the only ones whose contracts include an absolute no-trade clause – will accelerate the remaking of the team, in a positive way.
In any case, there almost certainly will be a lot of new faces in the locker room next fall, and how long it takes for more than superficial personal and professional relationships to develop between them and the holdovers will be interesting to watch.
4. If the entire coaching staff is fired, how will Marc-Andre Fleury react to having his third goalie coach in three years?
Fleury had a few significant hiccups during the playoffs – the end of Game 4 in the Columbus series comes immediately to mind – but, in general, put together his strongest showing in the postseason since the Penguins’ Stanley Cup run in 2009.
Some of the credit for that – as well as Fleury’s strong regular-season – belongs to Mike Bales, who replaced Gilles Meloche as the goaltending coach last summer and got positive results from tweaking Fleury’s playing style.
Fleury doesn’t have the personal bond with Bales that he did with Meloche, but that isn’t necessarily a bad thing, and it’s clear that Fleury was receptive to the suggestions Bales offered.
Whether he would have such a productive relationship with yet another new position coach is impossible to say without knowing who that coach would be, but there surely would be an element of risk in making a change.
Of course, the entire issue will be moot if the new GM decides that Fleury, who has one year remaining on his contract, is not the goaltender with whom he wants to go forward and puts him on the trading block.