On Friday afternoon the Pittsburgh Penguins cleaned out their lockers for the last time at Mellon Arena, leaving behind only memories and questions of what the future holds.
It's never easy to move on after a loss such as the Pens suffered Wednesday night, but it's time to start looking ahead to what promises to be an eventful offseason.
The Pens enter this year's offseason with eight unrestricted free agentsBill Guerin, Sergei Gonchar, Ruslan Fedotenko, Jordan Leopold, Matt Cooke, Jay McKee, Alexei Ponikarovsky, and Mark Eaton.
The biggest name on this list is undoubtedly Sergei Gonchar.
The 36 year-old defensemen has spent his past five years with the Penguins, averaging .80 points per game, 25:13 time on ice per game, and became one of the team's unquestioned leaders, albeit a silent one.
His calm, cool, and collected demeanor has greatly helped in leading the young Penguins' maturation process. As Pittsburgh's captain Sidney Crosby put it, "He's a quiet guy, so he probably doesn't get talked about as much for being a leader, but he's definitely an important leader on our team. His calmness rubs off on everybody. It helps guys to settle down sometimes. He's got that quiet confidence. His game speaks pretty loud, but just the way he handles himself, that's contagious, too."
The signing of 22 year-old Kris Letang earlier this season suggested the Pens may be ready to move on from the Gonchar era and let the youthful Letang and Goligoski take over as the leaders of the Pens' power play.
If Gonchar is to sign with the Pens, his new deal would have to be much smaller than his previous 5-year, 25-million dollar contract and would probably be for less than what other teams will offer him this off-season.
If the Pens do manage to ink Gonchar it would have to be at a hometown discount, which I don't envision happening this late in his career. I think he'll probably go somewhere where he'll be offered a bigger, lengthier contract, leaving his Pittsburgh days behind.
Gonchar's departure leaves a great void in the Penguins' defensive core, bringing us to their other three free agent defensemenJordan Leopold, Jay McKee, and Mark Eaton.
The first priority of these three is Leopold. At 29 years-old he's the youngest of the three players, is the best skater of the three, and is more than capable at both ends of the ice.
Between McKee and Eaton, Mark Eaton is the better option for the Pens. He has been a solid defenseman with the Pens for five years now, and at 33 years-old, he brings a calm, veteran demeanor much like that of Gonchar's.
If there's one thing I can guarantee you this offseason, it's that neither of the Ukranian Wingers (Ruslan Fedotenko or Alexei Ponikarovsky) will be back in a Pens uniform next season. Their subpar play down the stretch lost them a good amount of potential money (especially Ponikarovsky) and a home in Pittsburgh.
That brings us to our final two free agents to be addressed: Matt Cooke and Bill Guerin.
Barring that Guerin doesn't opt to retire, both him and Cooke are must-signs this offseason.
Guerin is a veteran leader who has proven the ability to play on a wing with Sidney Crosby.
Cooke, on the other hand, is an integral piece to one of, if not the best third line in hockey. He brings a much needed grit to the Penguins' star-studded lineup, but also has the ability to score 15-20 goals a year.
Obviously there will be players outside of the Penguins organization to come in and sign with the team. It's hard to speculate whom that might be with such a vast array of players to enter the free agent pool this summer, but here are some names that will be considered: Colby Armstrong, Henrik Tallinder, Anton Volchenkov, Dan Hamhuis, Joe Corvo, and Mike Van Ryn.
With all that in mind, here is what the Penguins' lineup will look like come the start of next year's regular season: