Dan Di Sciullo, NHL Editor
Philadelphia, PA (Sports Network) -
One of the NHL's biggest stories of the 2008-09 season, up until the past few weeks, was the disappointing play of the Pittsburgh Penguins. That storyline has changed, as certain events - namely a flurry of wins - have greatly altered the perception of this year's edition of the Pens.
The Penguins, last year's Eastern Conference champions, were picked by many as Stanley Cup favorites prior to this season. However, for much of the year it seemed that Pittsburgh wouldn't even qualify for the postseason, let alone make it back to hockey's biggest stage.
That was until Penguins general manager Ray Shero decided to make some big changes in the Steel City. The most drastic move, of course, was the firing of head coach Michel Therrien on February 15.
Just last season, Therrien was hailed as the man who turned the club around by getting his players to buy into a philosophy stressing team defense, but after 57 games this season, Shero had seen enough. And it's not like the GM hadn't made a commitment to Therrien, who had his contract extended through the 2010-11 season this past summer.
Therrien was sacrificed after leading his club to a 27-25-5 record and 59 points. At the time, Pittsburgh was outside of the playoff picture in the East, but as mentioned, things have changed dramatically over the last month.
Since Dan Bylsma took over for the fired Therrien, the Penguins have suffered just one regulation loss, going 11-1-3 under the interim head coach. That hot streak has helped vault Pittsburgh all the way from the 10th seed into a tie for the fourth slot in the conference.
Like most teams in the tightly-contested Eastern Conference playoff picture, the Pens are still just a few points away from being knocked out of the postseason, but things are certainly looking brighter than they were last month.
In his quest to turn around the Pens' season, Shero didn't stop at the firing of his head coach. He also made some key moves at the trade deadline that have helped Pittsburgh find its rhythm.
The biggest addition has been the trade for winger Chris Kunitz, a player the Pens acquired to give centerman Sidney Crosby a finisher with whom to skate. Crosby and Kunitz have jelled, with the latter posting six goals and six assists in 10 games since coming over in a deal with Anaheim.
Crosby has also shined in his first seven games with Kunitz, recording 13 points on four goals and nine assists during their time together.
Kunitz wasn't even the highest-profile trade Shero had pulled off this season, as that distinction was reserved for his deal for veteran forward Bill Guerin, who came over from the Islanders at the March 4 trade deadline. Guerin has also paid dividends so far, posting nine points (2 goals, 7 assists) in his first seven games in a Penguins uniform.
The deals for Kunitz and Guerin didn't grab nearly as many headlines as last year's trade that brought sniper Marian Hossa to Pittsburgh. Hossa also had great chemistry with Crosby, as well as Evgeni Malkin, and was a big reason that the club made it all the way to the finals, where it ultimately lost to Detroit. Of course, the Pens weren't able to re-sign Hossa in the offseason and he utilized his free agent status to ink a one-year deal with the Red Wings.
The same scenario won't happen with Kunitz, who is Penguins property through the 2011-12 campaign. Guerin, on the other hand, will become a free agent at the end of the season.
Shero has displayed a knack for improving his club in the midst of a season, something that is one of the more difficult tasks an NHL general manager is expected to perform. This past offseason was a different story, as Shero signed veteran forwards Miroslav Satan and Ruslan Fedotenko to one-year deals. They were expected to do the jobs Kunitz and Guerin are currently excelling in, but Satan and Fedotenko have had disappointing seasons with the Penguins.
To be fair to other GMs, Shero does have the luxury of having Crosby and Malkin -- two of the best centers in the world -- as the pivots on his top two lines. That factor has indisputably helped incoming players like Kunitz and Guerin to make an easy adjustment upon joining the Penguins. If plugging players like Satan and Fedotenko doesn't work, simply add another winger to the mix, and eventually you'll find a combination that works.
In fact, the process could conceivably go on as long as Crosby and Malkin are part of the Penguins organization. Even though Satan and Fedotenko haven't reached expected levels of production, Shero was wise to sign both players to one-year deals. The strategy allows a GM flexibility from year-to-year, something that is extremely important in the salary cap era.
It's all about timing in the NHL. When you get hot means as much as anything, and every team in the East should fear the Penguins as a force to be reckoned with by the time the playoffs roll around.
Shero has shown the ability to maximize his roster by finding the right role players to complement his two superstars, and that influx of skill will make Pittsburgh a Stanley Cup contender for a long, long time.