Saturday, April 30, 2011

Now what?


With the dust settling for the Penguins, it's time to start thinking about what this team could look like next season. It could be very different or it could be exactly the same.

If you were to go to's Penguins page, you'll see an awful lot of green UFA icons among the forwards. There are 10 of those, to be exact, with an additional two red restricted free agents.

In other words, Pittsburgh has more expiring contracts for forwards than those signed for next season.

It's also pretty clear that the current group didn't have any kind of firepower to get the job done in the wake of certain high-profile injuries you might have heard about. Ray Shero's decision is how many of these players does he want to retain and how much does he want to dip his toes into the free agent pool.

We can rule out a few of those 10 names right off the bat. Eric Godard, Alexei Kovalev and Mike Comrie will not return. (Editor's note: I will always regret how this season went down for Comrie. At least until next season.) Arron Asham and Mike Rupp are wild cards who are a) affordable and b) replaceable. My thinking is Rupp is the likelier of the two to stay.

One or two players seem certain to return. Craig Adams and Pascal Dupuis have both found happy niches here. Adams accepted close to the league minimum for two years to remain in Pittsburgh when he was a free agent in 2009 and I'd almost expect him to sign a very similar contract this time around. Dupuis is coming off a three-year contract that paid him $1.4 million per year. Considering Dupuis is 32, I doubt he'd get a three-year offer from Shero, who rarely offers that kind of term to role players. I could see Dupuis coming back for two years with maybe a raise of a couple hundred grand.

A sixth name on the list is Nick Johnson, who spent the majority of the season in the AHL. I'd be surprised if he leaves the organization but he would likely receive a two-way deal.

Max Talbot could be the Penguin most likely to be elsewhere. In a Rob Scuderi situation, some team might offer him more money than he can afford to turn down. It shouldn't be a great deal; he made $1.05 million the last two seasons, and his biggest assets are his penalty killing and heart, so a gigantic raise shouldn't be expected. But as close as Pittsburgh is to the salary cap as it currently stands (CapGeek says the Penguins have just under $3.7 million available for next season, but of course, that number could raise by two or three million), too many players earning raises could price them out of town.

Chris Conner earned an NHL job this season and is the last of the UFAs. In fact, he might be the guy who possibly pushes Talbot or Dupuis out of Pittsburgh as a cheaper option. However, he did not kill penalties, and that could work against him.

The two RFAs are the intriguing ones. Dustin Jeffrey should return. His problem is he has actual ability to play the skill part of hockey, and management and the coaching staff frown upon that sort of thing. In any case, Jeffrey made a shade over $500K and shouldn't expect a big raise.

It's Tyler Kennedy who could move up a bracket. He clocked in at $725K the past two seasons and responded with a career-year this season. Since he's just an RFA, he won't have as much leverage but I'm sure he'll end up pulling in north of a million annually. The question is how much.

Money, term and salary cap aren't the only issues either when deciding who returns. Available jobs is just as key. Let's take a look at what Pittsburgh's lines would look like right now, with none of these 12 free agents re-signed:

Chris Kunitz-Sidney Crosby-James Neal
Eric Tangradi-Evgeni Malkin-_________
Matt Cooke-Jordan Staal-________
______-Mark Letestu-_______

(And no, I didn't really like typing Cooke's name, but he's going to be given one last chance to clean up his act, whether I like it or not.)

Twelve pending free agents. Four open roster spots in the starting lineup, with room for a couple extra forwards, maybe. Pittsburgh has seven defensemen signed for next season with Simon Despres possibly ready to play in the NHL. That's quite a logjam and makes the decision-making very difficult. The Penguins should no longer need an "enforcer" given the emergence of defenseman Deryk Engelland's fighting ability, so no need to sign someone like Godard.

Now, maybe they decide Tangradi should play at least part of the season in the AHL. I do not wish this but the concussion he suffered set back his development at least a little. So his roster spot is not a certainty. That still wouldn't clear up room for everyone, so we're going to assume he's ready. His mere presence alone could improve that ghastly power play.

Kennedy and Jeffrey should return. Adams too. So that would leave Rupp, Talbot, Asham, Dupuis and Conner left for one starting spot and maybe two or three roster spots as healthy scratches/13th-14th forwards. Yikes.

(OK, insert, "Well, there will be one more spot available once Cooke gets suspended" joke here.)

The one thing that seems certain is some quality role players will be hitting the market on July 1. I don't envy Shero these decisions. And by the way, we haven't even talked about anyone he might want to pursue from other teams.

Part of me wants to see new blood in the lineup but also likes the possibility of some potential line combinations with this group. Of course, that's assuming Jeffrey gets a chance to play with good players.

To sum up, I'm glad I'm just spewing my baseless, meaningless opinion about this and don't have to actually make any decisions myself.

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