March of the Penguins: How Ray Shero Can Forge a New Pittsburgh Dynasty
Having survived years of uncertainty and questions about their financial viability in a small-market town, the Pittsburgh Penguins, thanks to the inspired leadership of owner Mario Lemieux and masterful moves of GM Ray Shero, have become a model NHL franchise and the favorites to win the Stanley Cup.
After shocking the NHL by acquiring Jarome Iginla, Brenden Morrow and Douglas Murray, Shero has assembled arguably the most talented team in Penguins' history. While it remains to be seen whether acquiring all of that talent will result in another Stanley Cup, Shero promises to have a busy and challenging summer as he looks to create a new sports dynasty in a town that has seen its share. Although the constraints imposed by the league's collective bargaining agreement will force Shero to make some difficult decisions during the coming year, don't expect the Penguins to take a step backward.
With the right moves, Ray Shero can keep the Penguins moving forward as a Stanley Cup favorite for years to come and, as any good second-guessing sports fan should, I have my own opinions as to what those moves should be.
Salary Cap Constraints
The challenge facing Ray Shero will be reconfiguring the Penguins roster in light of the reduction in the salary cap from $70.2 million to $63.3 million which takes effect this summer.
According to www.capgeek.com, the Penguins presently have about $55 million committed to 17 players under contract for the the 2013-2014 season which leaves them with a little more than $8.5 million of cap space remaining. With the impending free agency of Jarome Iginla, Brenden Morrow, Matt Cooke, Pascal Dupuis, Craig Adams, Douglas Murray and Mark Eaton this year and Evgeni Malkin and Kris Letang and others next year, it is clear that the Penguins simply cannot afford to bring everyone back.
While it's impossible to assess the impact that the reduced salary cap will have on free agency, especially for older players, it's safe to say that the Penguins team that takes the ice next fall will not be the same one that leaves the ice this summer.
Who to Keep: Free Agents
The first step for Ray Shero in reconfiguring the Penguins roster will be to set his free agent priorities.
Penguins beat writer William DePaoli has reported that re-signing Pascal Dupuis and Jarome Iginla are believed to be Shero's top priorities. Given that Iginla has been playing for $7 million per season since 2005 and with Pascal Dupuis having a career year, it's possible that it may take most if not all of the Penguins' $8.5 million of cap space just to re-sign those two.
While many expect that Dupuis' market value will be around $4 million per year for 2 years, the Penguins may be able to lower his annual cap hit by adding an extra year especially since Dupuis showed a strong desire to stay in Pittsburgh during his last contract negotiation.
With regards to Iginla, multiple sources have reported that he blocked a trade to the Boston Bruins and instead chose to be traded to the Penguins because he wanted to sign a contract extension to finish his career alongside Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin. Hopefully, both players will decide to give the Penguins a hometown discount and re-sign for less than market value.
It's clear that whether Dupuis and Iginal remain as Penguins or choose to move on to other teams, their demands and decisions will set the tone for the rest of the Penguins' off-season.
Who to Move Up: Beau Bennett
While Ray Shero's trade acquisitions have garnered most of the attention lately, the uncertainty of free agency and the constraints of the salary cap demand that the Penguins continue to develop young players who are ready to step into the lineup. In Beau Bennett, the Penguins have found such a player.
Since arriving in Pittsburgh on February 14th, Bennett has made steady improvement in both the physical and mental aspects of the game and appears more than ready to become a permanent fixture in the Penguins top-6 forward rotation. Known for his shooting and skating ability, Bennett's talents have proven to be a good fit for Penguins Head Coach Dan Bylsma's up-tempo system. With Sidney Crosby under contract for the foreseeable future, Shero will be looking for a talented winger to pair with Crosby for years to come and Bennett appears to fill that need.
Since he has two years remaining on his entry-level contract and makes less than $1 million per season, keeping Beau Bennett at the NHL level makes sense from both a hockey and financial standpoint and it would give Ray Shero flexibility to make additional moves that may be needed.
Who to Move Up: Simon Despres
While the play of Simon Despres has been much more erratic than that of Beau Bennett, he has shown enough promise to remain at the NHL level as well.
As the top blueline prospect in an organization loaded with them, Despres has been mentioned as both a future all-star and possible trade bait this season. Blessed with size, speed and great hands, Despres has the potential to be a fixture on the Penguins' blueline for years to come but his inconsistent play has raised questions.
With talented defensemen like Derrick Pouliot, Olli Maata and Scott Harrington waiting in the wings, it's time for the Penguins to go "all in" on Simon Despres and move him up in the rotation in order to see what they have before they decide whether or not to move him out.
Who to Move Out: Tyler Kennedy
Given the development of Beau Bennett and the looming reduction in the NHL salary cap, it may be time for the Penguins to part ways with Tyler Kennedy.
With just 10 points in 41 games so far this season—2 points less than Beau Bennett has in half as many games—Tyler Kennedy has not performed to the level Penguins management thought he would when they signed him to a 2-year/$4 million contract in 2011 following a 21-goal season. By contrast, Pascal Dupuis has topped the 20-goal plateau each of the last two seasons while earning just $1.5 million per season. As a 26-year-old restricted free agent, it seems unlikely that Tyler Kennedy would be willing to take a pay cut large enough for the Penguins to re-sign him and just as unlikely that he would do so just to remain on the third line.
Since the Penguins traded away their 1st-, 2nd- and 5th-round picks in trade deadline deals, trading the rights to Tyler Kennedy for one or more picks in this year's draft only makes sense especially given the depth of talent in the 2013 class.
Who to Move Out: Paul Martin
While many Penguins fans might think that this move would be one year too late, trading Paul Martin this summer is the right move for Ray Shero to make.
After being offered a trade after last season due to his poor play and high price tag, Paul Martin has returned to form and been the most improved Penguin player this season. To be clear, the issue is not whether Paul Martin is worth $5 million per year. His steady play both in his own end and on the powerplay has shown that he is. The real question is whether the Penguins can afford to pay him what he is worth given the reduced salary cap and the specter of having to re-sign Evgeni Malkin and Kris Letang in the near future. The answer to that question is no.
Unfortunately for Paul Martin, his recent injury has given Ray Shero a chance to see if the team could handle his absence and, due to the steady play of Mark Eaton, the Penguins have handled it well. Possessing a similar skill set as Martin, Eaton has been a stabilizing presence since rejoining the Penguins who are 18-3 with him in the lineup. In addition, having signed a one-year contract for $725,000, Mark Eaton has proven to be one of the biggest bargains in the NHL and, at 35, he won't be looking for a big payday elsewhere.
Just as Ray Shero traded defenseman Zbynek Michalek during the 2012 NHL Entry Draft to acquire draft picks, prospects and cap space, he may very well decide to "sell high" and deal Paul Martin as well.
Who to Move Out: Dustin Jeffrey
Just as Beau Bennett's development has made Tyler Kennedy expendable, the recent acquisition of Jussi Jokinen has done the same for Dustin Jeffrey.
A versatile player who can play any forward position on any line, Jeffrey had been the beneficiary of injuries to key Penguins players over the past few seasons. However, that role has recently been filled by Jussi Jokinen who has been centering Sidney Crosby's line while he recovers from a broken jaw.
In addition, Ray Shero's insistence that the Carolina Hurricanes pick up part of Jokinen's salary next year as part of the trade that brought him to Pittsburgh seems to indicate that he is going to be with the Penguins next season as well. As a result, Jeffrey, a restricted free agent, seems to be a prime candidate for a trade to a team looking for younger and cheaper players who can fill a top-six forward role.
With very few open spots on the Penguins roster for the foreseeable future, Dustin Jeffrey could use a change of scenery and Ray Shero could use the draft picks which make a trade the likely outcome.
The Finished Product: Forwards
Assuming, for the sake of argument, that the aforementioned moves are made and everyone on the Penguins roster is healthy at the start of next season, here's what next year's Penguins might look like:
First line: Pascal Dupuis - Sidney Crosby - Jarome Iginla
Moving Dupuis to left wing, his original position when he joined the Penguins, allows Crosby to play alongside Iginla and gives him a proven power forward, something he hasn't had since Bill Guerin retired.
Second line: Chris Kunitz - Evgeni Malkin - James Neal
Last season, Malkin won the Hart and Art Ross trophy as the MVP and leading scorer in the league while skating alongside Kunitz and Neal. Reforming that line could have the same result.
Third line: Brenden Morrow/Matt Cooke - Brandon Sutter - Beau Bennett
Having added grit to the Penguins roster, Ray Shero will make a concerted effort to re-sign either Cooke or Morrow. Beau Bennett is ready to be regular in the lineup.
Fourth line: Tanner Glass - Jussi Jokinen - Craig Adams
If both Cooke and Morrow sign elsewhere, Jokinen could move up to the third line which would open a spot for Joe Vitale. Dan Bylsma trusts Craig Adams too much for Ray Shero not to re-sign him.
The Finished Product: Defensemen
On the Penguins blueline, there is uncertainty as to whether Ray Shero will be able to re-sign Douglas Murray or if Robert Bortuzzo or Deryk Englland can provide the net front presence that the Penguins have been lacking since Hal Gill left via free agency.
Assuming that the Penguins can re-sign Murray, here's what the defensive pairings might look like.
First pairing: Brooks Orpik - Kris Letang
Letang is at his best when he is carrying the puck into the offensive zone or pinching in at the blueline and the presence of a stay-at-home defenseman like Orpik allows Letang to do both.
Second pairing: Mark Eaton - Matt Niskanen
Niskanen has quietly become a steady two-way defenseman and should see an increase in his role and ice time. Mark Eaton has, at times, been the Penguins' best defenseman and should be re-signed.
Third pairing: Douglas Murray - Simon Despres
Pairing Despres with a stay-at-home defenseman like Murray would give him the freedom to employ his offensive skills and eliminate the inconsistency that has plagued him so far this season.
Looking Down the Road
While no one can predict the outcome of this year's Stanley Cup playoffs or what moves Ray Shero will make this offseason, Penguins fans can rest assured that every move will be made with an eye toward re-signing Evgeni Malkin and Kris Letang to long term contracts.
With Sidney Crosby setting the precedent by refusing a pay raise and taking much less than market value, there is reason to believe that Evgeni Malkin, who agreed to re-sign for the same amount as Crosby on his current contract, might do the same on his next contract especially coming off a down year.
Kris Letang, on the other hand, will and should be expecting a hefty pay raise with his next contract. As the Penguins' top defenseman and Norris Trophy candidate, Letang would easily command $7 million or more per season on the open market and the Penguins would be best-served by signing him to a long-term contract this summer and avoiding the distractions and trade rumors that surround top-tier players approaching free agency.
Ultimately, the Pittsburgh Penguins' championship aspirations rest not with Ray Shero's ability to acquire star players, but rather with his ability to keep his own star players from leaving. Only time will tell whether this season marks the start of a new dynasty in Pittsburgh or is just the last ride of a promising team before the fiscal constraints of the new CBA stop the march of these Penguins, something other NHL teams may not be able to do.