In the aftermath that was Detroit winning their 11th Stanley Cup and Pittsburgh using their finals defeat as a building block for what appears to be a promising future, chances are that if and when these two teams cross paths somewhere down the road (like, say, maybe in next year’s cup finals?), the Penguins may look drastically different the next time around.
Enter the man who will be under the most pressure this offseason, Penguins GM Ray Shero. Shero will have a daunting task of trying to figure out which pieces of the puzzle fit and which ones don’t. With the salary cap, the Penguins’ roster is almost assured to change, with 12 unrestricted free agents set to hit the open waters July 1. The names in clude Marian Hossa, Ryan Malone, Brooks Orpik, Mark Eaton, Gary Roberts, Jarkko Ruutu, Georges Laraque, Pascal Dupuis, and Adam Hall.
At the top of Shero’s to-do list will surely be trade deadline acquisition Marian Hossa. Hossa netted a team-high 12 goals for the Pens in the playoffs, and he’ll be the biggest fish in the free agent pond next month. And the most expensive. So the dance begins. If Shero keeps Hossa in the fold, that means he probably won’t be able to give top dollars to Fleury, Staal and Malkin. At least not the big bucks they’d receive in free agency. The best case scenario for the Penguins is that Hossa turns down more money from other teams to take less and say with the Pens, which he stated he’s willing to do.
But when push comes to shove, can Hossa shy away from the money? There won’t be a shortage of teams that will have the hots for Hossa in a few weeks. The Canadiens and Bruins will have the money to throw at Hossa. The Rangers are always interested in marquee names, and the Sabres and Wild are rumored to want him as well.
So will potentially $6 or $7 million a year be too good for Hossa to pass up? In a place like Montreal or Boston, he’ll be the man, a guy that those rich, Original 6 fanbases will be looking upon as the franchise guy, something that Hossa might not be. For me, the biggest thing Hossa and his agent Rich Winter must weight, is just how much greener is the grass away from Pittsburgh?
Right now he’s playing with one of the best players in the world, in Sidney Crosby. Crosby’s playmaking abilities, and his ability to take the spotlight off of Hossa make life pretty sweet for Hossa, especially in the playoffs. Do you really want to walk away from the best player in the game and go somewhere else? That would be like having prime rib put in front of you, and brushing it aside to eat sloppy joes.
If Hossa decides winning and having a chance annually to play for the Stanley Cup is more important than the money, Hossa’s list will be a short one. And one that doesn’t include Boston, Montreal, Buffalo or Minnesota, who are a few paces or more behind the Pens as far as getting to the finals or winning a cup is concerned.
Brooks Orpik and Ryan Malone will be two other hot commodities that may be out of the Pittsburgh’s monetary reach, especially if Hossa sticks around. Orpik’s defensive star is on the rise and his four-hit shift in a span of 30 seconds in Game 3 still has people around the local watering holes talking. Ryan Malone is blossoming into a solid power forward, netting 27 goals this past season, six coming in the playoffs. Both players could receives offers up towards the 4.5 or 5 million a year mark on the open market, which might be out of the Pens’ price range if one or both decide against taking the hometown discount.
42-year-old Gary Roberts will be entertaining the thought of retirement, and if he were to leave, along with fellow bruisers Georges Laraque and Jarkko Ruutu, suddenly the Penguins wouldn’t be nearly as physical and tough to play against as they were a year ago.
To further compound Shero’s hellish summer is the big-three: Marc-Andre Fleury, Evgeni Malkin and Jordan Staal. Fleury will be a restricted free agent this summer, and he’ll be due for a hefty raise from the $1.6 million he earned in 07-08. And with the goaltending pool fairly shallow this summer (Cristobal Huet, Jose Theodore, Dan Ellis), the Penguins’ hand may be forced, if Fleury were to receive a lucrative contract offer from another team that would force Pittsburgh to match the outside offer.
Malkin, an MVP candidate this year, and Staal both have one year remaining on their contracts, with both set to become unrestricted free agents this time next year. Something Shero hopes to avoid. Along with Fleury, Malkin’s new deal will test just how deep Shero’s pockets are. To keep what looks to be a franchise netminder and legit superstar in tact, hopefully Shero’s pen enjoys writing zeroes. Although only 19 years young, the Pens also have no intention of letting Staal, the second pick in the 2006 draft, wear a different sweater.
And then there’s Pens coach Michel Therrien, who has only one year left on his contract. Rumors of do the players like him or hate him? Is he the right guy to have captaining the ship? Fair questions sure, but if Therrien doesn’t succeed, it won’t be because he had a shortage of talent. Maybe they were a little bit ahead of schedule this year, but now the bar has been raised in the Steel City. They breezed through the Eastern Conference and made it to the Finals. Many experts correctly predicted that the Penguins needed to learn in order to learn how to win. The time for the Penguins and Therrien to get it done isn’t two or three years down the line, it’s right now. And like now, as in 2008-09.
Runner up to the Stanley Cup is never a consolation prize whether it’s your first or fourth trip to the finals, but considering for a moment where the Penguins used to be and what they did this year to go to the finals is nothing short of remarkable.
Just two years ago, the Pens were the worst team in the league. Actually, at the end of the 2006 season, they completed a stretch of being the worst team in the NHL for four seasons running. They almost moved to Kansas City and left Pittsburgh behind. From 2002-2006, the Pens lost 178 games and finished in last place in the Atlantic Division in all four years. But with those dreadful years came hope and promise in the form of Sidney Crosby, Fleury, Malkin and Staal.
This past year was great. The Pens went 47-27-8, claiming their first Atlantic Division title since 1997 and first Eastern Conference crown since 1992. The Penguins won 12 of their first 14 playoff games. They rose up and overcame adversity. There were without Fleury for three months due to ankle injury and Crosby was lost for two months with a high ankle sprain. Enter back up goalie Ty Conklin, who went 18-8-5 and some guy named Dany Sabourin, who won 10 games. Without Crosby, Malkin became an MVP candidate and stud, scoring 20 goals and dishing out 26 assists in the 28 games Crosby was sidelined. Despite the injuries and the slow start (8-11-2), the Penguins finished two wins and six periods shy of a cup.
With the salary cap comes changes, and even with the Penguins set to move into a new arena and leave the 47-year-old Mellon Arena behind, the Penguins’ management won’t have enough cash to go around for all their free agents, making impossible to retain them all. There will be choices to be made, tough choices. It’s going to be difficult to make it all work. But that’s the down side of having a salary cap. What you look like this year compared to the next is often night and day. Keeping core guys under one roof is tougher now more than ever.
With training camp a few months off the horizon, no matter what the Penguins look like this fall, their goal will remain the same.