Blueprint to a Perfect Offseason for the Pittsburgh Penguins
Pittsburgh's weaknesses were exposed in the playoffs: a lack of team defense, poor goaltending and a need for more grit.
General manager Ray Shero faces a challenge. The Penguins have some key unrestricted free agents this summer and next summer, including superstar Evgeni Malkin, and have already committed $56,423,333 in cap space to 18 players for 2013-14, per CapGeek.com. The cap ceiling will be $64.3 million next year, so clearly some changes are coming to Pittsburgh before next season starts.
Here is a blueprint for a successful offseason for the Penguins and the areas they need to address.
Feel free to comment on what you feel the team needs and the best ways to plug the holes the playoffs revealed.
1. Make a Quick Decision on Dan Bylsma
Since winning the Stanley Cup in 2009, the Penguins have been eliminated from the playoffs by a lower-seeded team in each of the past four seasons.
Now there are some rumblings that coach Dan Bylsma's job may be in danger, according to Dave Molinari of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.
Bylsma has been very successful as coach of the Penguins. The Penguins won the Stanley Cup in 2009 when he took over behind the bench late in the season. He won the Jack Adams Award as the league's best coach in 2011. In each of his three full seasons behind the Pittsburgh bench, his team has accumulated more than 100 points in a season. This season, they were on pace for 123 points if the season were a full 82 games.
Still, Pittsburgh's lack of playoff success since 2009 means their last four seasons have ended in disappointment.
General manager Ray Shero has a decision to make with regard to Bylsma. He can keep his coach based on the overwhelming regular-season success and Stanley Cup win in 2009, or he can move on because the Penguins have struggled in the playoffs since then.
Whichever way Shero decides, he should have his head coach for 2013-14 in place before the NHL draft at the end of this month. The feeling here is Bylsma should stay.
2. Settle the Goaltending Situation
Goaltending was an obvious problem for the Penguins in this year's playoffs. Starter Marc-Andre Fleury played poorly in the opening-round series against the Islanders and was replaced by backup Tomas Vokoun in Game 5.
Fleury has been the starting goalie in Pittsburgh since 2005-06, but he has faltered badly in the playoffs over the past two seasons. This season, his playoff GAA was 3.51 and his save percentage was just .883. In 2012, his numbers were even worse, a GAA of 4.63 and a save percentage of .834.
After two horrible playoff performances in a row, it is unclear how much confidence the Penguins' organization can have in Fleury.
According to CapGeek.com, Fleury has two more seasons on his contract with a cap hit of $5 million per season. That's an awful lot of money to pay a goalie who has badly let his team down two years in a row against teams that finished below the Penguins in the standings.
According to the Tribune-Review's Josh Yohe, GM Ray Shero may try to move Fleury. However, he may have trouble doing that due to a glut of goaltenders that could be available this summer. Free agents include Niklas Backstrom, Evgeni Nabokov and Tim Thomas, and other goalies could be available via trade.
Moving Fleury would also clear up some cap space the Penguins could surely use in signing key free agents.
If Fleury is moved, that would leave Vokoun as the presumed starter. He will be 37 before the new season starts and has one year left on his deal at a more cap-friendly $2 million.
If Shero feels Vokoun can start for a season, he would still need to find a credible backup and groom a long-term replacement.
If Vokoun is the starter in the fall and gets off to a slow start, Shero could always make a deal to acquire a goalie before next year's trade deadline. Either way, a quality goalie not named Marc-Andre Fleury is needed on the Pens roster.
3. Sign Evgeni Malkin and Kris Letang to Extensions
The Penguins have two key players with contracts that expire at the end of next season: Evgeni Malkin and Kris Letang.
Ideally, the Penguins would love to sign both of them to long-term deals, but the priority has to be Malkin.
Having both Malkin and Crosby at center is part of what makes the Penguins so tough to play against. Opposing coaches can't send their best checking line out against both of them, and it gives Pittsburgh two of the best players in the world on its roster.
Shero and Malkin have both said they want to reach a deal to keep Malkin in Pittsburgh, but a deal has to be reached that keeps both Malkin happy and the Penguins under the cap and able to field a competitive roster.
As for Letang, while Shero would ideally like to keep the Norris Trophy finalist for the long haul, Yohe believes the Pens may look to trade him to free up cap space.
Letang is much like the team as a whole: very talented offensively but shaky on defense. In an ideal summer, Shero signs both Letang and Malkin to long-term, cap-friendly contracts or gets a lot in return for Letang in a big trade.
4. Keep at Least One Potential UFA
Pascal Dupuis, Matt Cooke and Craig Adams are three Penguins forwards scheduled to become unrestricted free agents this summer.
Dupuis heads this list. He scored 20 goals in 48 games this season, which would put him on pace for a career-high 34 over an 82-game campaign.
Crosby enjoys playing with Dupuis, and Dupuis is aware of the benefit he gets playing on a team with two of the most talented offensive players in the game.
The question is whether or not Shero and Dupuis can come to a deal that both gives the Penguins a hometown, cap-friendly deal and recognizes Dupuis' value.
Dupuis is 34, and this is probably his last chance to sign a relatively big contract. Ideally, he stays in Pittsburgh.
If Shero is unable to keep Dupuis, Cooke and Adams are also possibilities. Cooke has a stigma attached to him for dirty play, although he did cut down on his penalty minutes this year.
Cooke does provide grit, however, something the Penguins need to add to their roster.
Adams would be a third alternative, but only if he is willing to sign a cap-friendly deal.
It is likely Shero can only keep one of these players next season. Dupuis is the first choice, followed by Cooke and Adams.
5. Figure Out What to Do with Last Year's Trade Deadline Acquisitions
Ray Shero was touted as a big success at the trade deadline when he added players like Brenden Morrow, Douglas Murray, Jussi Jokinen and Jarome Iginla.
Unfortunately, none of these players quite worked out as planned.
Morrow settled down to the fourth line during much of the playoffs. Murray's lack of skating speed made him a questionable fit in Bylsma's system, and Iginla switched positions to play on the Penguins with inconsistent results. In the playoffs, Jokinen was often a healthy scratch, playing in just eight of 15 games.
Murray, Iginla and Morrow are all unrestricted free agents this summer, and it is very possible none of them will be back.
Iginla and Morrow will probably ask for more money than Shero is willing to pay. Iginla would need a multi-year offer and a no-movement clause to remain in Pittsburgh, although he reportedly is interested. Murray will only return if he can't find a better offer in the open market this summer.
Jokinen is under contract for another season and will likely be a bottom-six forward if Shero doesn't include him in some deal before next season starts.
6. Upgrade the Defense and Add Physical Forwards
The Pittsburgh Penguins need to improve their physicality and defense if they are to win in the playoffs next season.
Whatever players Shero acquires this season, via trade or free agency, have to address those two needs.
Rob Scuderi, Ian White and Michal Rozsival are three unrestricted free agents who might be helpful.
According to The Hockey News' annual "Future Watch" issue, five of Pittsburgh's top six prospects are defensemen. How soon players like Olli Maatta, Derrick Pouliot, Simon Despres and Scott Harrington are ready to contribute at the NHL level will help determine how much and how quickly Shero can upgrade the defense from within.
At most, one of these players is likely able to help next season.
Checking forwards who can kill penalties would also be a big help to Pittsburgh's roster in 2013-14, and they can often be added for less money than goal scorers.
Either way, Shero needs to overhaul his roster and improve the balance on his team.