Tuesday, May 5, 2015

On The Difficulty Of Starting From Scratch

The Devils yesterday hired Ray Shero to be their general manager, ending Lou Lamoriello's 28 year reign as GM.  There's some parallelism here - Lou, at least according to Wikipedia, named himself GM back in 1987, and has now fired himself.  Would that we all had a career like this.  Regardless, Shero is a curious choice - sure, he's one of the few available GMs with a Stanley Cup ring who is not eligible for Social Security, but given his policies with the Penguins, it's hard to see how he's the right guy to fix a Devils' ship that's run aground in a rapidly shrinking sea.  The Devils need to rebuild a forward corps badly damaged by poor drafting and the ravages of old age - Shero is famous for his trading of young players and draft picks.  He's also (in)famous for inheriting Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin when he took over for Craig Patrick in 2006.  However, let's look closer at the Penguins of that era, because I feel like people miss something when they talk about Shero's good fortune.

The 2003-04 Penguins were truly one of the NHL's worst non-expansion teams.  They finished with a goal differential of -113.  The interesting thing about this club is that they were relatively young - their 9 leading scorers were under 30 - but they were also horrendous.  Of the players that played on that team, three would end up winning a Stanley Cup with the Penguins five years later - Brooks Orpik, Rob Scuderi, and Marc-Andre Fleury.  The Penguins also had several players in their organization at this point who would go on to serve vital roles - they had drafted Colby Armstrong, Ryan Whitney, Erik Christensen, Ryan Malone, and Maxime Talbot.  They would add Alex Goligoski, Malkin, and Tyler Kennedy in 2004.

Here's what needs pointing out though - the Penguins got basically nothing of value for anyone on the 2003-04 roster.  Everyone on this roster either left via free agency or was traded for a pittance.  When Ray Shero took over in 2006, most of this roster was already gone - of the top 9 scorers on the 2003-04 team, only one repeated in 2005-06, Ryan Malone.  Let's detail what happened to those other guys in a list:

Dick Tarnstrom:  Traded in 2006 for Cory Cross and Jani Rita, Cross dealt in 2006 for 4th round pick in 2007, Rita returned to Finland in 2006

Aleksey Morozov:  Returned to Russian League for good in 2004, retired in 2014

Ryan Malone:  Left via free agency in 2008, scored 65 goals in his 3 future seasons with the Penguins

Milan Kraft:  Returned to Czech League for good in 2004, retired in 2013

Rico Fata:  Waived

Konstantin Koltsov:  Returned to Russian League for good in 2006, still active

Richard Jackman:  Traded for Petr Taticek in 2006 - Taticek never played for PIT

Tomas Surovy:  Returned to Europe in 2006, still active

Tom Kostopoulos:  Left via free agency in 2005

There you have it - the Penguins' top 9 scorers from that year turned into a 4th round pick.  And that's often the true price of 'tanking'.  There were assets in the Penguins' system at the time, but this is an entire team that apart from Malone, Orpik, Scuderi, and Fleury (none of these anyone's idea of a franchise player) may as well have never existed.  Shero made some very bold moves as Penguins' GM - the boldest being the add of Marian Hossa and Pascal Dupuis at the expense of Armstrong, Christensen, a former 1st round pick, and their 1st round pick in 2008 - but he was always hamstrung by the fact that he inherited a team with few assets besides the obvious two.  He needed all his young talent to fill out the garbage roster + Crosby + Malkin (coming soon) that he'd been handed, but he needed to augment that roster with players to compete for a Stanley Cup.  It's no wonder that the Penguins now are struggling to find young forwards - that was certainly not ordained, but it is not surprising when you consider the Penguins of 2003-04 and where they wanted to be in the late 2000s.  The legacy of an empty team lasts for quite a long time.

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