Saturday, June 19, 2010

Pittsburgh: What is the plan?


When Brian Gionta gave Montreal a 5-2 lead midway through the third period of Game 7, it was time for Penguins management and fans to turn their attention to the free agency market to search for answers to the team's problems.

I, however, did not. I was on my seventh beer by that point and it was all I could do to see straight. I wondered why the usher was giving me funny looks as I was deep in conversation with a trash receptacle.

Anyway, now sober, I'll examine Pittsburgh's roster situation and provide sheer speculation, with no facts or inside information, on what might happen. Or, what I'd like to see general manager Ray Shero do.

Of course, when discussing the potential offseason moves, one must first list the free agents Shero has. The unrestricted ones are wingers Alexei Ponikarovsky, Ruslan Fedotenko, Matt Cooke and Bill Guerin, defensemen Sergei Gonchar, Mark Eaton, Jay McKee and Jordan Leopold. Additionally, minor league players Ryan Bayda, Ben Lovejoy and Chris Lee are up for new contracts. The most important one in that third group is Lovejoy, who is a frontrunner to be on the NHL team next season. Bayda performed well in training camp but spent the season in the AHL.

The only restricted free agent of note is Chris Conner, who appeared in a handful of games, most notably scoring a pair of goals alongside Sidney Crosby in a win at New York. Nick Johnson signed a one-year contract already, removing him from the list of RFAs.

First, the goners. McKee and Fedotenko have as much chance of being on the Penguins roster next season as I do. (Though it should be noted that I believe I am more mobile than McKee and more accurate on empty nets from five feet away than Fedotenko.) Ponikarovsky struggled since coming over in a trade with Toronto and it is now likely he won't be back. It's also not looking good for Gonchar, who is looking for his final contract as an NHLer. Shero doesn't seem too enamored with committing a significant amount of cash to a 36-year-old defenseman who's been picking up injuries lately, no matter how much game he has left.

Some reports have indicated Shero wants to give Gonchar just one year. Gonchar is looking for three. Now some rumors have surfaced about trading Gonchar's rights.

One Web site out there is suggesting Cooke will not return to Pittsburgh either. The jury is out on Guerin, Eaton and Leopold, who all might return. For the blue liners, it depends very much on what happens with Gonchar. Eaton is probably the one most likely to re-sign. Leopold, after an unspectacular but not horrid start, became one of Pittsburgh's top two-way defensemen. Until he was laid out by Andy Sutton. When he returned, he wasn't the same player. Still, it might be a good idea to bring him back.

Guerin supposedly wants to play one more season, but he's going to need to play slightly fewer minutes as his body ages another year. Shero will look at other options first, I think, but Guerin might yet finish his career in Pittsburgh.

Based on what "seems" to be true, the Penguins need the following: A winger for Sidney Crosby (stunning; this position is normally so stable), one or two wingers for Evgeni Malkin, and a bunch of defensemen, including a potential power play quarterback. Pascal Dupuis is a wild card; he might end up filling Cooke's role on the third line or could be slotted in somewhere in the top two. Pittsburgh has plenty of grinders for the bottom two lines.

On defense, Brooks Orpik, Kris Letang and Alex Goligoski are the only ones signed for next season. We're going to assume Eaton and Lovejoy come to terms. Letang and Goligoski might be ready to handle full-time power play duties. If Gonchar signs elsewhere, that makes it more likely Leopold returns. He, Eaton and Lovejoy can also help out on the power play.

The main target(s), as usual, is a winger to put the puck in the net. Rumors abound that Nathan Horton will be traded, and soon. Frankly, I'd give my left testicle to get Horton. That might be a bit extreme, but as I said on Twitter recently, after seeing the likes of Dupuis, Fedotenko and Max Talbot in top-six roles, Horton looks like Bobby Hull.

Horton has had injury problems, but he's only 25, he's got great size (6-2, 229), he's got a nice contract (three years, $4 million hit/year) and he's managed three seasons of over 25 goals, including one with 31, while playing in Florida. My favorite part is he's a right-handed shooter. I don't know what the Panthers would look for in return, so the price in a trade might be too high.

I also saw a funny rumor that Chicago might trade Marian Hossa, but I think I mentioned that in a previous post. So let's look at free agent wingers. I would guess Shero would pursue Ray Whitney, Alexander Frolov and/or Lee Stempniak. I'd like to see any of those guys in black and gold. Slava Kozlov is too old and probably doesn't have any game left, Paul Kariya might be too expensive, and Patrick Marleau and Ilya Kovalchuk are definitely out of the price range.

Teemu Selanne was linked with the Penguins in a report I saw, but I can't imagine that happening. My guess is Selanne retires a Duck, whenever he does retire. Vinny Prospal had a good season for the Rangers, which means he'll have a bad one next year but he might still be a fallback option. I'll pass on Alex Tanguay, I think, who couldn't seem to gel with either Vincent Lecavalier or Steven Stamkos.

Most people in Pittsburgh have such a hard-on for a Colby Armstrong return it's distressingly pathetic. I think it's more likely a trade happens to bring back Hossa before Armstrong re-signs here. Other options might be Jason Williams, Maxim Afinogenov or (gulp) Mike Comrie, but I'm really hoping for someone else.

I think I depressed myself over the winger options, so let's turn to the D. Mainly what Pittsburgh needs is a rugged, big body. The Penguins can probably survive Gonchar's loss offensively, but the defensive end was the bigger liability. Anton Volchenkov solves that, but he will be at the top of many teams' wish list, which will drive his price up and out of Pittsburgh. Other options include Dan Hamhuis, Zybnek Michalek, or Andy Sutton. Maybe Toni Lydman or Aaron Ward.

If offense turns into a need, Joe Corvo or Derek Morris might be available.

In an ideal, non-cap world, my Christmas-in-Summer list has Marleau and Volchenkov at the top. More realistically, I'd settle for a Whitney (or Horton)-Sutton combo, maybe with another piece or two here and there.

Regardless, this is one of the two funnest times of the year. The other is trade deadline day. All kinds of rumor and frenzy are flying around, and as we've seen with the Jaroslav Halak trade and the seemingly-imminent Horton trade, we don't need to wait until July 1 for the craziness to start.

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