Ray Shero is out as general manager and the mandate from Pittsburgh Penguins ownership couldn't have been more clear- the next GM needs to build a more thorough and complete organization with more talent. They need to get younger, and they need more of the famous "grit and character" that Mario Lemieux and Ron Burkle said no less than 9 times, according to the transcript of the conversation with Dejan Kovacevic.
What does "grit and character" mean? Advance stat heads might fear that the Pens want to load up on worthless players like 4th line enforcers with no redeemable hockey skill. But that's not necessarily the case. Worst case, it could mean making bad decisions like giving David Clarkson a ton of money, or dressing a bunch of players like Tanner Glass and Craig Adams, but then again, it doesn't have to be that bad.
Just go back to 2009 when the Penguins won the Stanley Cup. Just look at who was surrounding Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin on their wings to get a picture of what Penguins ownership is looking for.
Crosby had two newly traded for players- Chris Kunitz and Bill Guerin. Both of whom had won Cups previously, both of whom added quite a bit of tenacity, leadership and focus. The two wingers were also productive; with Guerin scoring 15 points in 24 games and Kunitz adding 14.
Primarily playing on Malkin's wings were Ruslan Fedotenko and Max Talbot. Fedotenko wasn't the most skilled player, but he did score 7 goals and 7 assists in that playoff run. Not much clarification needs to be written about Game 7 hero Talbot, who also scored more goals that post-season (8) than anyone not named Crosby or Malkin.
Guerin, Kunitz, Fedotenko, Talbot. All had sandpaper in their game. All were good forecheckers. All were responsible back-checking. All could also hit along the boards and were capable in loose-puck battles and competing along the wall. And they were very productive in 2009, the four combining for 56 total points, with all four scoring steadily between 13 and 15 points.
This year, the Pens had Kunitz, Brian Gibbons / Lee Stempniak, James Neal and Jussi Jokinen as pure top six wingers. There wasn't as much cohesion, especially in the Rangers series when Malkin was shifted up to play on Crosby's wing, since no one else on the right side could produce much. Those five players only combined for 28 points in the 2014 playoffs. Take away Jussi Jokinen and that figure plummets to 18.
There was no cohesion this year. The Pascal Dupuis injury hurts, but the team had time to replace him- and cap room too with Dupuis going on long-term injured reserve. Shero was only able to come out of the deadline with Stempniak (3 points in 13 games) and depth center Marcel Goc (1 point in 9 games). They couldn't get the job done, and Shero paid the price to not be able to surround Crosby with enough talent.
"Take care of Sid and Geno" would be the clear message for the incoming GM. Structure draft strategy and trade strategy around making sure there are options available. Because as we have seen lately, when there aren't options, a GM gets pushed into the corner and his actions become harmful. Don't trade half your first round picks away, and then use other high 2nd and 3rd round picks on collegiate players that project to be big-time, long-term projects. That was a consistent strategy of Ray Shero, and it didn't pay off, looking back it wasn't the right call at the right time.
Like in 2006 with Carl Sneep, 2009 with Philip Samuelsson and Ben Hanowski, 2010 with Bryan Rust, 2011 with Teddy Blueger and 2013 with Jake Guentzel- all 2nd or 3rd round picks used on collegiate players who were clear long-term project. To make matters worse, most of these picks by the Pens higher than they were ranked by Central Scouting, and none have made an impact of note at the NHL level, in time to save Shero's job.
No one could expect all of these picks to pan out, and it's worthless to use hindsight to say who they should have or could have picked. But the fact remains that good teams have good young talent. Shero's failure was in not finding enough young talent, and his drafting strategy wasn't aligned with the career-lifecycle of his most important players
Crosby and Malkin are currently at the tail end of their peaks at going on 27 and 28 years old, respectively. They need an influx of talent as quickly as possible - so that the Pens don't have to reach and pray for 2nd tier rentals like they did in 2010 (Alexei Ponikarovsky), 2011 (Alex Kovalev) and 2014 (Stempniak).
The next Penguins GM will have to navigate several lengthy, expensive, long-term contracts to fill out a competitive team. The good news is that the building blocks he has in place are very nice ones to have. To succeed where Shero has failed he'll need to draft better, maybe get a little luckier and hopefully make wise decisions in the trade and free agent market to put the best possible team together for Crosby and Malkin to play with.