Since taking over the GM position from Craig Patrick, Ray Shero has completely reshaped the Pittsburgh Penguins approach to building a hockey team, focusing on a talented core with a group of character supporting players that can be rotated year-to-year while still maintaining a competitive team. His unwillingess to lavish long and lucrative contracts on free agents has given the Penguins flexibility, and his ability to rob other GMs in almost every trade has inspired Pens fans to stand by the mantra "In Shero we trust".
This summer, however, criticism of Shero has mounted ever since he failed to land Zach Parise and/or Ryan Suter with the cap space freed up from shipping off Staal and Michalek. Every time one of the few talented players on the market signs an overpriced deal elsewhere, fans have blamed Shero for missing out. This is undoubtedly unjust - Parise and Suter weren't going to go to Pittsburgh no matter what Shero offered, Nash wasn't worth the assets or his huge contract, and signing Weber to an offer sheet would have been just as pointless for PIttsburgh as it was for Philly.
That said, there is some valid criticism of Shero out there. Firstly, this article is well worth reading and makes some good points that might help explain the Pens' recent playoff failures: http://thehockeywriters.com/ray-sheros-pittsburgh-penguins-ready-for-another-stanley-cup-run/ .
However, my big criticism for this summer is Shero allowing Steve Sullivan to walk. It wasn't that Sullivan wasn't willing to wait for the Parise situation, Shero said he actually told Sullivan they wouldn't be bringing him back. Sullivan was a great team guy, a great locker room presence by all accounts, got stronger as the season went on, displayed chemistry with Crosby and Dupuis, and drove the Penguins power play (if you doubt this, watch what happened during the series of games after Sid came back that they took Sully off the PP). Sullivan at 2M is cheaper than any of the other options out there and still had a lot in the tank. Letting him go makes zero sense to me right now.
However, Shero's reputation as one of the top GMs in the league is in place for a good reason. He knows how to build a team, and he has done it without compromising valuable assets at every juncture. Nobody the Pens lost in the Hossa trade has performed as well as Dupuis, and he was the throw-in. The Pens haven't missed Ryan Whitney, and Kunitz has been a staple for the team. And the fleecing of the Stars for Neal and Niskanen is perhaps his magnum opus. Even the Ponikarovsky deal, which didn't work out for the team, only lost them Luca Caputi. In fact, Shero's skill at signing role players to cap-friendly contracts and bringing in solid players for minimal assets has allowed the Penguins to be a top team year after year despite the fact that none of Shero's draft picks besides the now-departed Staal have yet made the team full-time. A break-down of the Pens' projected roster next year (if the season started with the current lineup), and how each player was acquired:
On one hand, it's sad that the most recent draft picks to play on the team full-time (since Despres' spot isn't certain yet) are 2005's Sidney Crosby, Kris Letang, and Joe Vitale. On the other hand, look at what Shero has managed to do through trades and free agency, both of which are often difficult to improve the team without sacrificing valuable assets or too much cap space. In the salary cap era, it's become a maxim that you have to draft well to have a good team, or you end up overpaying for free agents.
Shero's drafting started off shaky, but this summer's prospect camp was exciting because over the last few drafts, Shero actually has started to cobble together a solid prospect pool. Perhaps it isn't one of the top 10 in the NHL, but with core pieces like Crosby, Malkin, and Letang likely here for the long haul, we don't need the next #1 center. Shero's Penguins have excelled without good drafting, but over the next few years the team will hopefully start to reap the benefits of good drafting as well. Their 6 blue chip defense prospects are only the tip of the iceberg, as there are 3 or 4 other D in the system who could make an NHL impact one day. This means a solid Pens defense and the opportunity to make more trades like the Whitney or Goligoski trades. The forward pool is shallower, but with talent like Bennett, Kuhnhackl, Marcantuoni, and Blueger, the Pens might not have to rely on those trades to fill out their top 9.
The questions about Shero right now come from the fact that the Pens are in transition now. Their top prospects are all anywhere between a year and five years from breaking into the NHL and making a difference. And with a bare free agent cupboard and unrealistic trades, the 2012-13 season might be a step back for Pittsburgh between the free agent/trade era of construction and the homegrown draft prospect era.