Kukla's Korner Hockey
by Alanah McGinley on 03/28/08 at 05:27 PM ET
Earlier today, the Pittsburgh Penguins made general manager Ray Shero available for a media conference call. The Penguins currently sit first overall in the Eastern Conference with 97 points, and six points ahead of New Jersey and the New York Rangers in the race for first place in the Atlantic division. They are looking to win their first divisional title since 1997-98.
Here is the transcript from the Q&A.
Q. Watching the game last night, you had Crosby with Dupuis and Hossa. What was the thinking in combining Dupuis because a lot of people would have thought he would have been a third or fourth line guy, and next thing is Crosby, first game back, talk about his soreness level or how he came out of the game, Hossa missing the third period.
RAY SHERO: Starting with Pascal, the coaches elected to play him, and Pascal has done a real will job since he’s come here. He’s been here for 12 games and has added to our speed up front and our top nine forwards. When Sid was back for the three games, he played a bit with Pascal, and they seemed to click a bit. So they wanted to keep Laraque and Sykora together, and he was a good fit in our top six with those guys.
With Sid this morning, I think everything is okay there. We had an optional practice today, only three or four guys showed up, some guys were in treatment, things like that. Marian appears to be okay, just as we classified, the whole upper body but he appears to be okay today, knock-on-wood.
And Evgeni, same thing. So I think we’ll find a little bit more tomorrow in all of these guys as we go back to practice.
Q. At trade deadline date, people were saying that the Hal Gill acquisition might have been one of the least significant moves at the deadline, especially criticizing Fletcher on the other side. How important to Pittsburgh was this deal, and what were your motivations and does that give you room to try Whitney on left wing, but with Beech and maybe Roberts coming back, where would Whitney fit?
RAY SHERO: We are thinking—No. 1, Ryan is a defenseman, we know that. You know, we need to have a good defense like most people at this time of year. With Ryan, he moved to left wing at the Jersey game. With Ryan, we wanted to have that option on the power play and he ended up setting up the winning goal to Ryan Malone on the power play.
He’s a top defenseman, one of the top defenseman for us and usually runs 22, 23 minutes, and he’s a little more inconsistent into his game right now and he knows that and he’ll get that back. You know, and then for him to play up front there was an added benefit for us, and obviously still playing the first unit in the power play. So at some point we’ll get him back on defense, sure.
Q. And Gill?
RAY SHERO: Hal Gill, what we were looking for was trying to improve our penalty killing. Also we got Hal Gill at 6-7, 250, a guy that can play against bigger, stronger forwards. And since he’s been here, he’s been a real good addition for us and our coaches have really used him on the penalty kill.
When you see Hal, he’s got over 20 points this year, and I think he’s at plus-five or -six here already for us, and that’s after the first game, he was at minus three against Boston the first game.
But he’s been a nice, solid addition for us and he’s fit very well with our defense.
Q. How much expectation is there with the Penguins this year? Last year in the playoffs, you went out in the first round, now is there a lot more expectation in the City of Pittsburgh and in the organization, or do you feel this is one more step in the progression to be in the championship?
RAY SHERO: I think from the start of the year, there were more expectations from the team just based on the season the team had last year with 105 points. And I think that’s been part and parcel for our whole season.
But I think the team has responded well to the expectations outside of the first two months, which, you know, which were bumpy and we faced quite a bit of adversity and we starred losing players to injury so I think we bounced back well from that.
The coaches and players have done a very good job. But the expectations are there, and for a number of teams in the league. I think you have to have expectations for yourself anyway, especially going into the playoffs. Our goal at the beginning of the year outside of what other people said about what they thought of our team, our goal was to make the playoffs, and as we see, it’s very difficult to do.
There’s teams still struggling to get in for playoff positioning. Our expectations were we to make the playoffs, now we’ve accomplished that, and now we’re into positioning and our expectation is to really be a tough team to play against in the playoffs. That’s going to be our goal and we’ll see where that’s going to leave us.
Q. On Malkin and Ty Conklin, would you be in this situation if both players had not elevated their games?
RAY SHERO: Yeah, it would be tough to say we would be. Going back to December 7th, I believe in Calgary, the ship was supposed to sink at that point and Ty Conklin came up and went on an incredible run for two months and did an incredible job and was suddenly our MVP possibly.
The Conklin thing was really good for us, we got ten wins out of Dany Sabourin, which was great, and certainly was a big benefit or a big reason why we are where we are.
Then with Sid going down, you know, that was the other thing, without Fleury and without Crosby and the way Gonchar (ph) stepped up and took his game to another level certainly and Malone and Sykora really took off. It was, you know, without those two significant contributions, it would have been certainly an uphill battle. They have had a huge part in our success here so far.
Q. And Malkin, he looks like the kind of guy that relished the extra responsibility.
RAY SHERO: Yeah, I guess he relished it because he certainly thrived against the competition, and raised his game to another level.
You know, not taking too much against—what we still had intact is we still had our defense intact, and I think our defense is really underrated. You know, you take a look at our Eastern Conference here, we are one of the teams with one of the lower goals against in the entire conference. But we have Sergei and the year he’s having, he’s having a tremendous year offensively and defensively, and Whitney has scored 11, 12 goals, amongst the best in the league for defensemen.
And Kris Letang has certainly taken off as a first-year player, and it really has helped our offensive game. Our power play has been amongst the Top-5 or six the entire year. When you take a look at that, coupled at what Getty (ph) has been able to do to raise his game, it’s playing against top defensemen most nights; and with Sid being out, it’s been quite the challenge for him but obviously he’s been up to it.
Q. With the trade deadline, were you afraid of upsetting any team chemistry, and how has that worked out and any concerns you had, were they alleviated?
RAY SHERO: I think you’re always concerned about chemistry, and that’s one of the things I think we have established over the last couple years is I think we are a close-knit team. And it was difficult trading the two guys off of our team in the Hossa deal, being Kobe Armstrong and Christianson, and thought long and hard about that. But being able to add a Marian Hossa to our group in the last couple weeks, we thought that was worth the risk and the reward might be worth it.
You know, I knew Marian way back when I was in Ottawa and drafted him here in Pittsburgh actually. One thing about him, he’s a caring player and great person, and with any team he’s fit in quite well, and same with Dupuis. I wasn’t that concerned, and I think we have a good group here. They will embrace any new player, which they have, and certainly I think it’s reflected in our play since the deadline.
We have been a pretty good team since then, and, you know, that’s behind us now. That was February 26th, so we are a month later, and I think the team has gelled pretty well with the new additions and with Hal Gill, have been a big part of that.
Q. Is there a time where the players are stopped looking at as the new guys and are just part of the fabric, and has that moment passed?
RAY SHERO: Yeah, that’s passed. Right away we had a trip down to Florida, and we took all our players, even injured players. And it was a good week-long trip for everyone and culminated with the game in Washington which was just a great game.
Washington played a great game, so did Pittsburgh, and we ended up winning at the end. That was a good bonding trip for this group of players, and so I think, you know, that’s behind us now. We are a team with the Penguins, and looking forward to the challenge for the playoffs.
Q. We have started to see these longer-term contracts with Richards and Ovechkin; do you think that’s going to be more of a trend that more and more teams will have one of those kind of guys, and do you think that’s good for the game?
RAY SHERO: Every team is in a different situation as we know. You know, whether or not it’s going to be good for the game, it’s tough to answer because that will play itself out.
You know, the negatives are, there could be potential poor play by the player or the team over a certain period of time and either party might not be happy. There could be injuries, certainly. And there’s a benefit of having a guy locked up for that period of time and knowing your costs and knowing you have that player and that trust that you can build around that player.
I don’t think you can really look at this thing short term. I think in few years we’ll see the long-term contracts and what the ramifications are before we make any long-term judgments.
Q. Did you have any thought of going well beyond the five years?
RAY SHERO: Yes, we had talked about that, and we had a lot of discussions about a longer-term deal, shorter-term deal and the more we talked about it with Sid and his agent and his family. At the end, Sid came back and was very comfortable where he was on the five-year deal with one year unrestricted free agency and so were we. We looked into that but we were both happy with five years at the end of the day, and we did that last summer. We said that, you know, it’s a five-year deal, but we’re hopeful, and I believe he’s hopeful that he’ll be a Penguin for the rest of his career.
Q. Can you talk about the conference being as tight as it is?
RAY SHERO: I think we see the same thing as you see. I don’t think there are clear favorites, and I think 1 can beat 8, and 8 can beat 1, and it’s going it be a very interesting playoff and that first round is really going to be a battle.
The only separation we can have, or any team could probably hope for, is playing to their potential. With the playoff series, you’re going to have good fortune, certainly good goaltending and things like that.
But you know, our team is looking forward to a very tough first round. But hopefully we are going to be prepared for that and hopefully our experience last year and throughout the year is going to prepare us for the playoffs this year, which we didn’t have last year.
Q. Last year was a fairly quick exit. Do you think the younger guys, Crosby included, learned enough from that experience?
RAY SHERO: Well, I think we are going to find out, and that’s part of sport. You know, it was a quick exit. I mean, the way it goes, we have all seen it quite a bit. You work for 82 games in exhibition, and you get to the playoffs, and you know, seven or nine games later, your season is over and it is a big thud and it’s a disappointing ending.
You know, what we took from our playoff last year was the experience certainly, but at the same time as the playoffs moved on, and as they dispatched of Buffalo and Jersey, and I’m talking about Ottawa obviously, came to the realization, this was one heck of a hockey team. And they ran into a very good team in Anaheim in the finals, but we took them to five games, and I don’t think anybody else took them to longer than that.
So I think we did learn from that, and at the same time, we’re all hopeful that, you know, these younger players learned something from that in terms of preparation, in terms of the intensity, in terms of the sacrifice. Those are the things we are talking about moving forward, and certainly any guys that do have playoff experiences this year with Dupuis and Hossa and guys like that, I think will be beneficial to us. But it’s going to be a battle for all teams and we are looking forward to it.
Q. You guys will see Jaromir Jagr over the weekend twice, and he had some terrific seasons with the Penguins and will be a free agent. There’s a school of thought that he has a lot left in the tank and that maybe his numbers would improve with a more offensive-minded team than the Rangers. Do you agree with that, and would you consider pursuing him in the summer? Does that intrigue you at all?
RAY SHERO: Obviously any guy that’s under contract, you can’t speculate on or talk about, but I’m not sure about his numbers and so forth. He’s second in scoring on their team, and he’s a huge part of their hockey club and they have a dynamic team and he’s a big part of it. And every time we do play him, he has something to say in terms of how the game is played or dictated.
He’s difficult for any team to shut down and 63 points is still a good season. And they are a well-balanced team and he makes them a bit more dangerous team, and I think he’s—you know, in terms of their style, he suits them just fine because they are having a terrific year.
Q. Talk about the playoff series last year, losing to the Senators, what do you think your team learned from that experience?
RAY SHERO: I think when you look back at it, it was, I believe our players thought they were prepared. They were ready; finished up our regular season in pretty strong fashion. And I just remembered that puck dropping and it might have been four minutes in the game, we were down two-nothing; and it was quick and intense, and obviously the fans in Ottawa were loud. And we were back on our heels that entire first game. Might have been a 6-3 game or something like that, wasn’t even that close, I believe.
Then we went into the second game, and we squeaked one out there in Ottawa and came back 1-1 to Pittsburgh.
But I thought our best game of the series was Game 3. I thought we were deserving of winning Game 3. We didn’t, and that was really the end of the series.
But you know, it was—I think the intensity, and we’ve talked about this, what we seen from Ottawa last year and the way they played us in the first round and how they have had a lot of success in the playoffs; it’s not even so much the offense, but it’s a lot of the Commodores, and McAmmond, Meszaros; it was the other players that helped make a difference as they went long in the playoffs and had those top players.
But you certainly need those role players to play a top role for you, to shut down other players, to sacrifice, to do a good job in their role, and that’s what we are looking to have this season, as well, in the playoffs.
Q. On Crosby, just compare what you saw when he originally came back from the high ankle sprain compared to what you saw out of him last night?
RAY SHERO: When he first came back, he played three games, the third game being by far the best and most complete game for him, that was the game in Washington. The Tampa and Florida games, I think he was a little tired. The pace was quick. He had a big assist in the winning goal in Tampa that we won 2-0 in the end.
But I thought he responded well. He was getting better and the third game was the best. And last night, know, I think his condition level was better than it was, he’s on top of his game. It was a funny game last night where obviously the Islanders are down (ph) in terms of their injuries but they played us hard again last night. The ice was not very good with respect to our maintenance crew, the puck was everywhere for both teams and it wasn’t a pretty, pretty game. He had great chances and was thrown on the puck and played a little over 20 minutes I believe. So I think his condition is there. I think he’s on top of his game and it’s going to be real beneficial these last few games.
Q. I had a follow-up on your comment on Marian Hossa, and you said that he was yelling with Crosby and the rest of the guys out there. How do you envision him in your future plans? Are you expecting him back next year?
RAY SHERO: I’m not sure to be honest with you. I think when the season is over, we’ll have that discussion, see how our season ends, how it ends for him, in terms of what a team want and what a player wants, you have to be on the same page.
So if I had the crystal ball to say whether he would be here or not next year, I don’t know. I know he’s here now and I know he’s going to be a real big help for us down the stretch in the playoffs, so I want to take advantage of it right now if we can and see where we are summertime and next year.
Q. Why do you think there’s so much equality in the East and the West this season?
RAY SHERO: Well, I think with the way the system is now, teams like Philadelphia, we beat them eight times last year, all eight times and certainly they have retooled and they have done a great job there and they are a very competitive team and have young kids coming, as well.
It’s not as hard in the present system to turn it around with free agency at 27 years old. And they added a number of free agents and they have a number of young players in the lineup now, same things with Phoenix. They got the young player, Bryzgalov, on waivers, and certainly their defense I think has been underrated with Ballard and Jovanovski and Michalek, and they have young players coming, so it’s great to see. Chicago has turned it around with younger players.
There’s different ways to do it. Every game is really competitive and difficult, and the league is very even, and it makes for some great battles as we go down the stretch.
Q. Is Marian going to practice tomorrow?
RAY SHERO: I’m not 100% sure. I think we’ll see later on today how he’s feeling and I think he’d be close to practicing, that would be the expectation, so I think we’ll find out a little bit more probably later today.
Q. With the season that Sergei Gonchar has had, do you see him as a potential Norris Trophy candidate, and if so why; and if not, why not?
RAY SHERO: The reason why not is because he’s really under the radar all the time. People outside of the city of Pittsburgh recognize him. But the way he plays for us, what makes him a candidate in my opinion is his two-way game. He’s our top penalty killer on defense, and he matches up against the best players every night. He has got the biggest challenge on defense on our team, and he has certainly exceeded anybody’s expectations on the defensive side of the puck over the last year and a half, and his game has gone to another level there.
And at the same time, think maybe he’s second in defense scoring in the league. He’s a plus player, and you know, when you do it both ends of the ice and he’s not a guy that we play against third, fourth lines, he’s the guy that as you know, he watched us play and he’s playing against the first line and top players every night and that’s the challenge he wants. He’s a pretty quiet guy but he’s been terrific for us.
Q. Is it always a difficult chore when you trade for a player like Hossa when you can only have him for a couple of months, and why couldn’t you convince him to play on a team with Malkin and Crosby; that it’s the best thing for him?
RAY SHERO: That’s a good question and that would be the hope I think at the end with Marian. Answering the first question, there’s nothing that we have in place with him moving forward; that wasn’t the deal. That was the deal at the deadline, as we know.
As we move forward, it’s no different than Petr Sykora. Petr Sykora came here, he wanted to play in Pittsburgh, wanted to play with the center ice man, and you see the year that Petr is having, 28 goals; and even more importantly, he’s really enjoying himself and he’s got a smile on his face every day and he’s really enjoying Pittsburgh.
This is what he’s playing for and he’s played on some good teams and won a Cup before, but you know, he wanted to play here and play with these players, and we are hopeful that it’s Marian Hossa or other players; that you see the skill that they can play with, and the Crosbys and Malkins, and even with the Whitneys and Gonchars and Letangs, these are really good offensive players.
And if you’re an offensive player, you want to play with good players, and I think whether it’s even a Malkin that flies under the radar a bit off the ice because of Sidney, you know, Sidney is a go-to guy and done so many things for us, it takes the pressure off a Malkin and Sykora.
With Hossa, he’s not the guy in the spotlight here, because he’s a deadline acquisition, yeah that through some spotlight on him but when you have guys like Crosby, these guys can play, it takes the pressure off him.
Q. Is it a dollars thing that he wants more money?
RAY SHERO: That’s the question mark, and I really don’t know that until we get into it; any negotiation, whether it’s Malkin and Hossa what their expectations are, not only dollars, but term. Dollars are one thing, but we know with every player, they are going to want to player here, and they are a free agent, they can play wherever they want to play. So first part is, are you happy playing here, and if you are, and do you want to say; let’s try to make that happen. So the first part has certainly got to come first.
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