Friday, July 2, 2010

Work to be done


As I discussed a couple days ago, I was very thrilled with the prospects of free agency beginning. My faith in Penguins GM Ray Shero was rewarded when he landed two of the consensus top five free agent defensemen, Paul Martin and Zbynek Michalek.

Shero identified defense as Pittsburgh's biggest weakness - justified by the Penguins having the fifth-most goals scored in the league last season but ranking only 20th in goals against, and that despite having subpar seasons from Evgeni Malkin and a power play that featured Malkin, Sidney Crosby and the now-departed Sergei Gonchar. So he was quite comfortable with - and even planned on - spending upwards of $9 million annually to nab some marquee blue liners.

That cash hoped to be spent on retaining Gonchar and bringing in Dan Hamhuis, but those efforts quickly went by the wayside. Instead, Shero moved even faster to ink first Michalek for five years and $20 million and then Martin, also for five years but at $25 million.

So, naturally, I'm pumped. Just like I was on the evening of June 30. (Ahem.)

However, before excitement gets too high, it's time to analyze the team that at this point, will look somewhat different than the one that blew a 3-2 series lead to Montreal.

With the newcomers, the defense seems solid. However, the Penguins now have four defensemen making at least $3.5 million annually (Martin, Michalek, Brooks Orpik at 3.75 and Kris Letang at 3.5), so they're going to need to find the next Niklas Hjalmarsson, a cheap but effective youngster to fill out the other half of the bottom pairing. Alex Goligoski is the fifth D-man. Last year, Pittsburgh had just two blue liners (Gonchar at a cap hit of $5M and Orpik) making that much.

The hope is that Ben Lovejoy, signed for a very cap-friendly $525,000 each of the next three seasons, becomes that player. In very limited time, Lovejoy has shown composure and ability not expected of an NHL rookie. Deryk Engelland also showed signs of being an effective defenseman and could end up being seventh on the depth chart. He's slated to make $500,000 on a two-way contract for next season.

Lovejoy brings more of an all-around game while Engelland is a gritty, physical type the Penguins often lack.

Casualties of the Martin and Michalek signings include Jordan Leopold (already signed in Buffalo for $9 million over three years) and likely Mark Eaton, who made $2 million each of the last two seasons. Eaton is still a capable, reliable stay-at-home defenseman, but to stay in Pittsburgh he would have to take a massive pay cut. I don't see him doing that, nor do I think it's likely Shero brings in another aged veteran along the lines of Jay McKee, who signed for $800,000 last season. Doesn't mean it won't happen though.

In any case, that's the status of Pittsburgh's new, and hopefully improved, defense. There are no issues in goal. Marc-Andre Fleury is the starter and Brent Johnson is a very affordable and capable backup. Now to forwards, and, well...

Most of the forwards remain the same. Gone will be Ruslan Fedotenko and probably Alexei Ponikarovsky, a bust. The lack of league-wide interest in Ponikarovsky opens the door a crack for a return but he'd have to take a one- or two-year deal for less than the $2.5 million he made a year ago. He's likely headed for a third address.

Bill Guerin is in limbo. In November he turns 40 but wants to play another season. He wants to be in Pittsburgh, but Shero wants him to take a paycut. As of this writing, Guerin hasn't made a decision. He does have at least one other suitor.

With Guerin, there remains one glaring hole. Without him, there are two. The Penguins still lack a stable of top-six wingers, but the splurging on Martin and Michalek doesn't leave much room to fix that. Eric Tangradi possibly fills one of those voids. If he's on the NHL roster, Shero has about $2.2 million of cap space. Tangradi makes roughly $850,000 and will be given every chance in training camp to make the NHL team.

Since Shero likes to leave room for injuries and trade-deadline potential, he's not going to blow that $2.2M on one player. But there's not much out there for a cheap price. Shero hopes to sell a veteran on the chance of playing in Pittsburgh, maybe win a championship and/or maybe earn a big contract next season. There are quite a lot of names out there, but it's a question - sometimes a big question - who would want to sign for a tiny contract.

For instance, Paul Kariya is a name sometimes mentioned. He made $6 million last season. He's 35 but still scored 18 goals with 25 assists. Alexander Frolov has been a favorite target among fans but he'll cash in somewhere else. Maxim Afinogenov, Teemu Selanne or Lee Stempniak just to name a few others are available, but some might want many dollars while Selanne might prefer to stay in Anaheim, especially now that buddy Saku Koivu re-signed.

Christopher Higgins has become a popular target. He hauled in over $2 million last season but struggled mightily with the Rangers and Flames to the tune of a whopping eight goals. That would bring his price down, but the potential and history of three 20-goal seasons will bump it back up. I wouldn't expect to see him in black and gold. In fact, as I was composing this, Kevin Allen Tweeted that he's hearing Higgins will sign in Florida for one season at $1.6 million.

To which I say, dammit. That contract could've fit in nicely if he regained his scoring touch.

To sum up, there's no telling who will have "W" as his position in a Penguins uniform next season. Shero has worked some magic tricks in the past (as recently as, oh, yesterday) so we'll see if he can do it again to bring in some additional offensive talent. He'll need to as well; while the Penguins scored a lot of goals, it would really help if there's another threat on the team besides Crosby and Malkin.

It's July 2, so far too early to finalize Pittsburgh's roster. While parts of it appear to be improved compared to the 2009-10 one, there still remain holes with no clear-cut, easy or guaranteed solutions. So even though things might be looking good on paper right now, we'll hold off on those parade plans.

At least until Shero signs Ilya Kovalchuk to a 40-year, $90-million contract that carries a cap hit of $2.25 million per year. Heavily front-loaded, I might add.

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