Now that the Penguins' offseason has officially begun, here's my take on where the Pens should go from here. The bottom line is that the Pens will be moving into a new arena, have a great core of young players in Crosby, Malkin, Staal and Fleury and will have roughly $20M to spend against the salary cap next year. With this in mind, here are my suggestions for Ray Shero:
Hopefully, Matt Cooke hasn't priced himself out of Pittsburgh with his play this year. He popped 15 goals and, along with Jordan Staal and Tyler Kennedy, is part of the best 3rd line in the league. He made $1.2M the past two years and is due for a raise up to $1.5-2M. This is the type of player the Penguins need; gritty, talented and can play the uptempo puck pressure game the Pens got away from in the playoffs. Before the playoffs, there was talk of a deal being done but hopefully it gets done soon.
I know that some Pens fans will be quick to kick him to the curb due to his age and limited success in the playoffs but they shouldn't be. The fact remains that Bill Guerin led all Penguin wingers in scoring and, while 11 of his 21 goals came on the power-play, there's simply no one else who can fill his shoes. If you would have told Ray Shero that Bill Guerin would score 21 goals this year, he would have signed him to a two-year deal last year. That's why the Pens should, if possible, bring him back for one more year.
While he has not exactly been the second coming of Paul Coffey, Jordan Leopold did fill a need for the Pens as a top four defenceman who can score and log plenty of ice time. While he's not going to win a Norris trophy anytime soon, he is not a liability on defense and takes some of the burden on Alex Goligoski who, at times, has been. Also, with Sergei Gonchar testing free agency, Leopold would be an insurance policy and could fill Sarge's role for the Pens power play next season if need be.
While no one can ignore the vital role that Sergei Gonchar has played in the Penguins recent success, players should not be paid according to how they have performed but how they will perform. The fact is that Gonchar is 35 years old and missed a quarter of the season due to injuries. He has been a vital part of the Pens power play but has at times looked disinterested in his own zone such as with the case of Montreal's fourth goal in Game Seven. While I hope that Ray Shero can bring him back, I also hope he doesn't overpay for Sarge. Besides, Montreal proved that you don't have to have a do-it-all No. 1 defenceman. Marc-Andre Bergeron quarterbacked the Habs power play and saw very limited even strength ice time.
The asterisk with Mark Eaton is for two variables, the cost and the availability of other players in free agency. Mark Eaton is a solid defenseman who can do a little bit of everything but not enough of anything to merit a big cap hit. He is, at best, a No. 5 or No. 6 defensman and, with a good group of young defenceman in the Penguins farm system, it may be smart to invest that $2M eleswhere. That being said, if Gonchar leaves, Eaton may be needed to fill a gap so I wouldn't slam the door in his face.
While Poni didn't exactly light up the scoreboard after arriving in Pittsburgh, he has shown enough to earn a spot in the Pens future for a couple of reasons. He has shown a willingness to compete and play within the system even when dropped to a fourth line roll. While they may not seem like a good reason to bring him back, let's face it, if Bylsma was setting his lines based on production, Craig Adams and Evgeni Malkin might have switched spots. While he's not a dominant power forward, Ponikarovsky is a legitimate scorer and Malkin has been without a reliable winger since Petr Sykora. Also, Luca Caputi was too high of a price to pay for just a short tryout for Poni. He should be brought back if the price is right.
While Feds has done some good things for the Pens the past two years, his lack of production coupled with a lack of a role on this team makes him this year's version of Miro Satan. He simply doesn't score enough to play on the top two lines and he doesn't skate or forecheck well enough to play a third or fourth line roll. He'd be better served to go to a lesser talented team like Minnesota where he can get the minutes he needs to contribute offensively. Plus, that $1.8M would better used elsewhere.
The only downside of the Marian Hossa deal was that the Pens lost a fan favorite and solid two way player in Colby Armstrong. Colby would be a huge addition and could play anywhere up and down the lineup for the Pens. He skates, can score 20+ goals, goes to the net, forechecks and is willing to drop the gloves against anyone. He is willing to do all of the litte things winning teams need to do and brings something the Pens lacked all series long against Montreal; tenacious intensity.
If this year's playoff failure taught the Penguins anything, it is not to underestimate the importance of a shutdown defenceman. Even though Crosby had success against Ottawa in Round One, that series would have been much shorter were it not for Volchenkov blocking shots, taking the body and clearing the front of the net. Of the Penguins six starting defencemen this year, only Brooks Orpki plays a physical game and they have yet to replace Rob Scuderi or Hal Gill. Signing Volchenkov would be a huge boost for the Pens blueline and would fill that need. You could also substitute Dan Hamhuis or Andy Sutton in this spot too.
One of the biggest surprises this year in the league was the resurgence of Maxim Afinogenov. While he's always had great speed, it hasn't always translated into offensive production but this year it did. Afinogenov scored 61 points while making only $800,000 on a year deal. While he'll command considerably higher in free agency. Ray Shero would be crazy to not at least take a look. Since Afinogenov's work ethic has been questioned in the past, it wouldn't be smart to throw a long term big money deal at him but the chance to play in a brand new arena for a recent Stanley Cup champion alongside his old linemate from the Russian Olympic team in Malkin might be enough to peak his interest. If a spot opens up on the top two lines, Maxim Afinogenov might be the perfect fit.
The single biggest difference between this year's Penguin team and last year's was a sense of urgency. Last year's team had it. This year's team did not. Last year's team started playing playoff hockey in mid February after a coaching change. This year's team started 9-1 but was 38-34 the rest of the season. This year's Penguins team was 0-4 versus Washington and 0-6 against New Jersey; 0-10 against the top two seeds in the conference but no one in the locker room seemed to be concerned. At times, they seemed to play with a sense of entitlement instead of a sense of urgency and that is why they are going home early. Last year's Penguins team played like it had unfinished business and had something to prove. This year's team played in a businesslike manner and seemed to feel like it had proven the hockey world wrong and that was enough. The sad part is that this year's team was probably more talented than last year's team but, as Montreal proved, playoff series are usually won by the team with the greater sense of urgency and not the greater level of talent. Let's hope that sense of urgency is built in to the new arena.