Devils general manager Ray Shero was fired by the Penguins in 2014. “No hard feelings on my end,” he said.PHOTO BY GETTY IMAGES
A great disappointment crossed Ray Shero's mind Monday as he drove along the New Jersey and Pennsylvania turnpikes toward familiar territory.
“It was my first year, and we had points in 16 straight games,” Shero said. “We were in Long Island, and Marc missed a puck with, like, 30 seconds left. I was (ticked) off, really mad.
“A few weeks later, Brian Burke told me, ‘Ray, you're going to get fired. You may win a Cup. You may win a lot. But the one thing you can count on is you're going to get fired.'
“And, you know, you're not a GM — not really — until you get fired.”
So, it's a real general manager bringing the upstart New Jersey Devils to a big hockey night in Pittsburgh on Tuesday.
And his Devils are a club the Penguins should really fear the rest of this season and beyond.
Their coach, former Wilkes-Barre/Scranton bench boss John Hynes, knows his next opponent. Their goalie, Cory Schneider, knows how to stop a lot of shots. Their cap space, around $8 million, is known as the greatest of NHL assets.
But, basically, the Penguins should fear Shero.
He's proven himself to be in a half-season what Jim Rutherford hasn't proven himself to be in a season and a half: an elite rebuilder.
The Devils' best days are ahead, but they appear to have arrived early.
The Penguins' best days are buried, and they're trying to play catch-up late.
“No hard feelings on my end,” Shero said while driving to the house in Upper St. Clair that he still owns, where his family spent the Christmas break.
Proof came three weeks after his firing, when Shero phoned Rutherford to wish his replacement well. Shero also phoned Mike Sullivan, whom he knows well, to congratulate the Penguins' new coach on his return to a top NHL job.
Of his first game as a visiting GM in the building he opened, Shero said: “It's closure more than anything.”
“Not that it's not there anyway, but if I went back (into Consol Energy Center) as a pro scout, it's probably not the same thing.”
The Penguins aren't the same thing since Shero was fired May 16, 2014. Then, at the very least, their identity was that of a “top quartile” NHL team.
Co-owner Ron Burkle said that wasn't good enough.
So what's been better?
Barely holding onto the final playoff spot last season? Chasing that final playoff spot this season?
Well, there is a lot of hockey to be played this season. The smart money is probably on the Penguins playing longer than the Devils.
But in the long term, I'll take Shero over Rutherford, the Devils' stable ownership over the Penguins' looking-to-sell group, and all that cap space.
In the long run, I'll probably come to think of Shero as having been lucky the Penguins fired him. Their philosophies were no longer his. What they prized was not what he sought.
Shero is a hockey guy.
The Penguins were a Stanley Cup contender when a hockey guy was in charge. Now they have the look of a flailing political campaign.
And the Devils are the beneficiaries of the biggest blunder the Penguins have made since sacking hockey's greatest coach.
Thing is, Scotty Bowman did just fine after the Penguins backed over him with a Zamboni. Likewise, Shero has recovered nicely since the Penguins threw him under one.
Here's hoping Shero doesn't receive a video tribute Tuesday night. Wouldn't seem right given all the lousy things said behind a good man's back on his way out.
Plus, anybody can put together a video.
Takes somebody special to get a Cup banner hung in Pittsburgh.
There is one hanging thanks to Shero's work with the Penguins.
Despite what we've been sold, a Cup banner should never be considered a disappointment.