Like just about everyone else in the hockey world, Capitals defenseman Brooks Orpik scratched his head last May when former Penguins general manager Ray Shero was hired by the New Jersey Devils to work under Lou Lamoriello.
How, he wondered, would Shero be able to affect change in New Jersey with Lamoriello still overseeing day-to-day operations? But when Lamoriello left the Devils to take on general manager duties under Brendan Shanahan in Toronto in July, Shero went to work on establishing a new culture in New Jersey.
“I’ve talked to a couple guys already that have told me how different things were just in the first couple weeks of training camp,” said Orpik, who spent eight years playing under Shero in Pittsburgh.
Tomorrow, the Devils will skate into Verizon Center with many of the same players from last season. But with Shero as general manager and former Wilkes-Barre/Scranton Penguins head coach John Hynes behind the bench, they will take a piece of the Penguins with them.
“I don’t know exactly how it was with Lou,” said Caps defenseman Matt Niskanen, who spent parts of four seasons in Pittsburgh before signing with the Caps. “I mean, you hear things, but it’s hard to speculate because I haven’t been there.
“But I do know with Ray, he’s going to try to have a real family atmosphere. His players are going to know that he really cares about them and their families. Kids are allowed in the dressing room from time to time.
“There are things that kind of go on behind the scenes that are appreciated by the guys. And he’s a real honest guy. The talks I’ve had with him, there’s no B.S. He tells you how he feels and he’s honest about it.”
Orpik said you would be hard-pressed to find anyone who played for the Penguins to say a bad word about Shero, who was fired by the Penguins after the 2013-14 season.
“He holds everyone accountable, but I think honesty is the biggest compliment I can give him. I think in a professional sports world, where they always say it’s a cut-throat business, I think honesty and loyalty is really hard to find and I think those are two things that really define him.”
Orpik said that when he was in Pittsburgh, Shero’s wife, Karen, planned concerts and dinners with players’ wives and girlfriends, and included players’ families in most team functions.
“I think when you’re younger you may overlook those things or not give them much value, but I think in hindsight you see it makes a huge difference when everyone feels welcome and wanted.
Orpik also has a long history with Hynes, 40, who was hired to coach the Devils shortly after Shero took over as general manager. Orpik worked for Hynes when Orpik was 14 and Hynes was working for USA Hockey in Boston.
“He’s really demanding, but many of the Wilkes-Barre players said he was the best coach they ever had and the one they learned the most from.”
Caps defenseman Taylor Chorney was one of those players. He spent most of last season playing for Hynes and current Devils assistant coach Alain Nasereddine, who, like him, spent most of his playing career in the minors.
“I’m sure for Naz and (Todd Reirden) there were lots of times when they wondered whether they would get another chance to play in the NHL,” Chorney said. “It’s not easy to ride the bus in a three (games) in three (days) and trying to keep the dream alive. But I think they’d both tell you that when you do get there, whether it’s a regular season game or the chance to suit up for the playoffs, it’s all worth it.
Chorney said that while the Devils’ roster may not be filled with all-stars, Hynes will make them tough to beat.
“They’ll be a super competitive team and they won’t be giving up in any games,” he said.