The three busiest times of the year for an NHL general manager are the trade deadline, the early July free agent signing period, and the Entry Draft. A draft really can’t be properly evaluated for a few years, but the other two events draw praise and criticism before the GM’s phones are back on the receivers.
Pittsburgh Penguins general manager Ray Shero’s phone was extremely busy at the last two trade deadlines and last July. The decisions made, with only a few exceptions, have drawn far more praise than criticism.
In the 2009 offseason, Shero is not likely to have anywhere near the drama associated with the failed attempt to re-sign Marian Hossa in 2008. The Pens traded away depth to get Hossa, and had to scramble to replace it after Hossa opted for the Motor City.
Miroslav Satan (who is now in the minors) and Ruslan Fedetenko were brought in for a combined $5.75 million on a pair of one-year deals. They were failed attempts to replace Hossa’s production.
Neither Satan nor Fedetenko are likely to be back next fall.
The good news is that Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin, Jordan Staal, and Chris Kunitz (who was brought in at the deadline) will all be back in key forward roles. They will be joined by Pascal Dupuis, Matt Cooke, Eric Godard, Maxime Talbot, and Tyler Kennedy from this year’s roster.
On defense, Sergei Gonchar, Brooks Orpik, Mark Eaton, and Kris Letang are back under contract. Goaltender Marc-Andre Fleury will be back between the pipes as well.
The 14 players mentioned that are signed through next year represent a high level of skill, and the core of the club. Unfortunately, the aforementioned 14 will have a combined salary cap hit that is approximately $7.224 million higher than was accounted for the same group this season.
The 2009-10 salary cap is based on 2008-09 NHL financials, so many experts are expecting a slight drop in next season’s cap. A bigger drop is expected in 2010-11, as the economic trouble really didn’t hit until after the season was ready to start. Most ticket and media deals were already in place by that time.
Because of the yet to be quantified drop coming, all GMs will be extremely cautious with any long term deals and big money for the upcoming seasons.
In addition to Fedetenko and Satan, current roster forwards with expiring contracts include Bill Guerin, Petr Sykora, and restricted free agent Bill Thomas. Thomas is likely to be back, but is not likely to contribute significant minutes.
Both Guerin and Sykora present interesting cases. Guerin is currently making $4.5 million per year, and it is doubtful that the Penguins can afford to throw that much at Guerin again. If Guerin is willing to come back with a lighter pay check, he would be welcomed with open arms.
Guerin is a veteran, a former captain with the Islanders, and provides leadership in the locker room. He has played very well on the wing of Sidney Crosby, and likely provides the young Pittsburgh captain with advice on when to speak up as a team leader. If he is not back, expect a similar player to be acquired at the trade deadline next year.
Sykora presents a case of a more one-dimensional player who is more difficult to value. Sykora is third on the team in scoring (excluding players acquired midseason), and leads the team in game-winning goals.
However, playing on the wing of the NHL’s leading scorer and potential MVP is bound to inflate those statistics a bit.
Sykora is a veteran of 12 NHL seasons, and it is likely that some NHL team will be looking for the “last piece of a puzzle,” and will need a veteran scorer. Because of the Penguins' need for wingers who can play a physical game and win possession battles along the boards, it is more likely than not that Pittsburgh will not offer what another team will.
Expect two or three younger faces to see action in Pittsburgh next year. Forwards Luca Caputi, Tim Wallace, Paul Bissonnette, Dustin Jeffrey, and Janne Pesonen have seen NHL action this year, and only the 26-year-old Pesonen is older than 24. Pesonen is an unrestricted free agent this summer.
All of these players will go into camp with hopes of playing in Pittsburgh, and while many will see action throughout the course of the year, two or three will start the year in the NHL.
If the services of interim head coach Dan Bylsma are retained, the Penguins will be in an excellent position to evaluate the chances of each of these prospects at the NHL level, as Bylsma began the year coaching many of these players at Wilkes-Barre.
Knowing both the personnel of the aspiring and the needs of the parent club should add a little more science to a very inexact art.
On the blue line, re-signing Rob Scuderi will probably be Shero’s top priority in the offseason. The 30-year-old is making just over $700,000 this year, and will be due a considerable raise. Scuderi is a defensive minded defenseman, who has been the most consistent defender in Pittsburgh this season.
Scuderi carries a +22 rating, which is the highest on the team. He is a fixture on the penalty kill, and is particularly useful in three-on-five and three-on-four situations. He has done a fantastic job of staying out of the penalty box this year, with only 14 penalty minutes in 77 games.
Scuderi will get attention from other teams this summer, but if Shero can utilize forwards currently in the system, the money should be available for Scuderi.
Restricted free agent Alex Goligoski will likely be back, after splitting time between Pittsburgh and Wilkes-Barre in 2008-09. Injuries to Sergei Gonchar and Ryan Whitney allowed Goligoski to get 45 valuable games of NHL experience. Goligoski struggled on the power play, but proved useful in most other aspects of the game.
Other defensemen with expiring contracts include Hal Gill and Philippe Boucher. Boucher is not likely to be back, while re-signing Gill is a possibility, but not a priority. However, if Scuderi isn’t back, the emphasis (and price) for Gill would greatly increase.
If Shero isn’t able to fill the blue line as planned, 25-year-old Ben Lovejoy is in Wilkes Barre waiting for an opportunity. Lovejoy has only played in two NHL games, so the preferred plan would be for him to start in Wilkes Barre, and be eased into a role in Pittsburgh.
However, if the Penguins aren’t able to get what they need out of the summer, the timetable could be compressed. Lovejoy carries an astronomical +42 rating at Wilkes-Barre, so Lovejoy represents an inexpensive and ample, if not comprehensive, insurance policy.
The final spot will be a backup goaltender to Marc-Andre Fleury. This spot will be filled outside the organization, as Wilkes-Barre goaltender John Curry is probably not ready for more than a spot start.
The 25-year-old is a respectable 32-14-1 in the AHL, but needs another year before he gets any consistent appearances in the NHL. After Fleury has missed time the last two seasons to injury, Shero understands the need of a veteran backup on the roster.
Looking forward to the next season while the current one is still underway is generally a sign of a disappointing season. That is not the case for the current Penguins, who will be going into the Stanley Cup playoffs as one of the hottest teams in the NHL.
However, it is the AHL Calder Cup playoffs that Penguin fans might want to keep an eye on this spring to see how much depth the team can afford next season.