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Mario Lemieux, Ron Burkle talk about Shero's firing

Pens ownership tells the Trib's Dejan Kovacevic why they fired general manager Ray Shero

Charles LeClaire-US PRESSWIRE

The Trib hit a home-run with an exclusive talk between their columnist Dejan Kovacevic and Penguins owners Mario Lemieux and Ron Burkle. The link is here, though they seem to have taken it down at least temporarily at the time of this blog. Still, huge scoop to Dejan.

The Pensblog has the full transcript here. It's worth your full read, but here are some highlighted selections.

I'm not going to paste the whole thing, it's worth your click to read it all but let's highlight some parts that jump out about the whole thing and what we've learned.

"Grit and character"

A phrase that Lemieux and Burkle used a combined nine times in a brief conversation. It's clearly a point of emphasis to them that the makeup of the Pittsburgh Penguins doesn't have enough grit and character. Mario referenced the Montreal Canadiens small, fast forwards (which made us think of guys like Brendan Gallagher). Later in the conversation, Burkle even talked about how the Pens had a guy playing well in Mark Letestu and traded him away for just a 4th round pick.

So, I wouldn't take "grit and character" to mean that the owners want to see Tanner Glass re-signed and add 3 more guys like Colton Orr that can't play hockey....But they clearly want to see more passionate, young, tough, intense players in the lineup and were very unsatisfied with the makeup of the team.

But think about it who the Penguins just played. Columbus had guys like Brandon Dubinsky, Boone Jenner, Matt Calvert, Jack Johnson, Nick Foligno...Win or lose all those guys busted their tails and had wonderful efforts.

New York had a ton of character with Brad Richards scoring the GWG (to go 7-0 in Game 7's in his career), Martin St. Louis playing through tragedy with the passing of his mother....That's just off the charts. Of course, you can't plan or even plant character, a team either rises above when it counts, or they don't.

We saw it in 2009 when guys like Bill Guerin, Evgeni Malkin, Jordan Staal and Sidney Crosby all provided that extra level  It's Sergei Gonchar playing in '09 on one leg.. For whatever reason the current group of Penguins haven't found it. The owners want that, and the new GM is definitely going to have to chase it.

It was Lemieux's idea to add Jacques Martin

Sounded like the owners really wanted to fire Dan Bylsma last year, but Shero stuck his neck out for his coach and a compromise ended up being adding veteran coach Jacques Martin (a friend of Lemieux's) to the bench. Emphasis is added:

DK: What’s the best way to describe how disappointed you guys are? I know how you felt about Ray as a GM and person. How disappointed must you be to have reached this point?

Burkle: I think we looked hard at ourselves last year. We spent a lot of time sitting in this very room last year, trying to figure out what changes should we make, what should we do. And we made the decision to bring another coach in and have a look, see if we could be more flexible, try to adapt between how we were playing in the regular season and in the playoffs.

DK: Jacques Martin.

Burkle: Yes. And Ray made a strong argument for what he wanted to do, for the continuity he wanted, for extending the contracts, all the stuff you know about. I think the piece that was added, really by Mario, and that was embraced by Ray was to bring the other coach in and change the ability to adapt to situations. And if you look back at that today, in some ways, I wish we hadn’t made that bet. Because that’s another year. So if we’re disappointed, it’s that we lost a year to the change that we should have made already.

Kris Letang

Mario Lemieux confirmed his belief in Kris Letang, but also said that the new general manager will have to decide whether or not the team keeps him. Letang begins a eight year contract worth $7.25 million next season.

In July, Letang will have a limited no trade clause. Until that time, he has no protection and technically could be traded to any team in the league. It is believed former GM Ray Shero gave his word to Letang that he wouldn't trade him before that no trade clause kicked in. But now Shero isn't here.

The owners weren't happy with the lack of influx of young talent

Well, duh. No matter how you slice it, Ray Shero didn't do a good job in his drafts and getting talent to the NHL from 2006-2014. Outside of a slam-dunk pick in Jordan Staal, he didn't have an impact forward as a draft pick make it to the NHL in his time.

DK: Well, by drafting better? Don’t you have to have four or five younger players on your roster for that purpose alone?

Burkle: We certainly don’t disagree with you on that. I think when we made a decision for a lot of good business to go to the cap six years ago, we were opening a new arena, and we wanted to let our fans know we intended to win. It was actually one of those two or three moments where we all got involved in the hockey operations, the GM’s world, and everything else. It’s ultimately our decision how much we spend, but we all sat down and said, look, you guys have a plan for the team you want to have in five years, we want to step it up. We don’t want to wait five years. I’ve got Crosby now. I’ve got Malkin now. I don’t think a five-year plan makes sense.

But what that wasn’t was a commitment to spend to the cap just to say we spent to the cap. And I think what we fell into was spending to the cap just because it was there. We don’t have a driven reason to spend to the cap just to do it. That’s foolish.

That last portion is a shot at Shero's decisions to spend money- one prime example that immediately comes to mind is the $13.5 million dollar, 4 year contract for Rob Scuderi last summer. After drafting several great young defensemen (and having vets like Paul Martin, Brooks Orpik and Kris Letang under contract for this season), Scuderi probably wasn't necessary. But it happened.

Just to drive the point home, they talked about young players like Simon Despres not getting a chance in the NHL, kind of tying that to guys like Ben Lovejoy and Brian Strait who also never really got chances in Pittsburgh and got sold for pennies on the dollar for a low return. Not great asset management to be sure.

DK: On that note, this team has been guilty, at least in my estimation of not giving its younger players a chance. I’m not going to paint Simon Despres as Bobby Orr, but he didn’t get a chance. It’s the regular season, you’re on your way to 51 wins, and no one every found about the kid, you know?

Lemieux: Yeah.

Burkle: Agree with that 100 percent.

But there's no funny business with Dan Bylsma

The big question- if a change was needed, why was GM Shero the only head to roll? Why not also the head coach? Lemieux and Burkle say they won't stand in Bylsma's way, but want to keep him around at least to see what the new GM wants to do.

DK: OK, I have to ask this: So there’s nothing ugly in this like hoping that Bylsma resigns to save you the rest of his contract, or keeping him from the openings in Washington or Carolina?

(Room gets pretty animated.)

Lemieux: No. If Dan was fired, he’d get a job tomorrow.

DK: So you wouldn’t keep him from another opportunity if it came?

Lemieux: No! No chance.

It was nice to hear the brains behind the decision announced this morning at the press conference. It's very clear that ownership expects a better overall product and felt the organization needed a new direction in order to best get back to the Stanley Cup. If that's the road it ends up getting to, then it'll be all worth it.