The seconds ticked away slowly, like trying to wake up from a nightmare. Our beloved Pittsburgh Penguins were down, in Game 7, to the Montreal Canadians. How could this happen? The Pens were primed to repeat as Eastern Conference champions with the top 3 seeds losing in the first round...
Last season is over, with Game 7 stricken from the fans’ minds; the future still lies ahead for a team with promising young superstars and capable veterans. Most will jump to conclusions about what the team should do; I have, surely you have too, read several articles about trading away one of the greatest young talents in the NHL, Evgeni Malkin, for scoring depth.
The Penguins don’t need knee-jerk reactions; they need a concise plan of attack for the off-season. Ahead are five areas which the Penguins need to address if another trip to the Stanley Cup finals is in their future.
Sergei Gonchar’s contract situation must be the first issue addressed.
Veteran defenseman and quarterback of the Penguins powerplay, Sergei Gonchar brings experience, leadership, and a rocket shot from the point to a team whose powerplay depends on shots from the point.
Gonchar’s run in Pittsburgh has been a symbiotic relationship for both parties. In five seasons with the team, Gonch has put up numbers that place him with the best offensive defensemen in the league: 54 goals, 205 assists, 259 points, and 37 power play goals.
There has been much speculation about Gonchar and the amount of time and money it will take to get him back into the Steel City, especially after his comments following the aftermath of Game 7 where he questioned the heart of the team. It is anyone’s guess as to whether the two sides can come to an agreement or not.
What is important in the situation is urgency. Gonchar’s future with the team must be determined before the Penguins can move into the other areas of need, such as top six forwards and more physical defensemen.
It would seem that if Gonch wants to stay in Pittsburgh he will have to take a considerable pay cut—he made $5.5 million last season. Around $3 million per year would probably be in the ball park for signing a soon-to-be 37-year-old defenseman. If a pay cut is not in Gonch’s future, then the Pens will have to rely on Alex Goligoski and Kris Letang to work the point on the power play.
The Penguins need to keep the gritty players they already have on the team. As a spread on the May 24th issue of The Hockey News attests, Matt Cooke is going to be a highly prized free agent. For all the reasons that fans and players on opposing teams loath Cooke, that is why he is so prized by the NHL and the Penguins.
He fights, he agitates, he hits, and he produces. What more could ask a hockey fan ask for from a player who made $1.2 million last year? Some would say that he’s a dirty player, and, honestly, sometimes I can’t find an argument to disagree, but it’s amazing how quickly those types of players— Daniel Cirillo, Sean Avery, Dustin Byfuglien, and Scott Hartnell—get signed.
Cooke will garner multiple offers this offseason, but it would be a mistake for the Pens to let him go. In the series against Montreal, one could argue that Cooke was one of the best players on the ice for Pittsburgh. He will probably want at least double what he made last season, and, if I’m Ray Shero, I give it to him.
Bill Guerin, the grizzled veteran, is another free agent the Pens should be determined to resign. There is a lot of talk going around about Guerin retiring after the season. While watching him play this season, I couldn’t help but think that he can go another year. He’s not as spry as he once was, but he still is a vital part to the leadership structure of the team as well as a first line player with Christ Kunitz and Sidney Crosby.
At the ripe old age of 40, Guerin can still play and produce as well as serve as a mentor to young, gritty forwards Eric Tangradi and Dustin Jeffrey.
As I have written in several other articles, the Pens need some big, bruising defensemen to shut down the crease in front of Marc-Andre Fleury. With that said, the well is very dry in the minors for physical defensemen besides last year’s first round pick, Simon Despres. With Despres being raw, the only way to toughen up the defense is either through trade or free agent signing.
Some of the interesting free agents that would come in the Pens price range are Nathan Paetsch, Paul Mara, and Anton Volchenkov, with the latter two being some percentage above the Pens price range. With the Pens’ need for defensemen, I believe that spending a little more on a capable defenseman would be worth the cap space. There are also some intriguing choices in the upcoming draft also, one of which is Dylan McIlrath.
Now I have to admit, after seeing this kid’s fights and checks, I want him on the Pens. Unfortunately, this doesn’t fill the need right now. His draft stock according to several sources, including The Hockey News, is right around where the Pens will be picking. He wouldn’t be ready to come in and start more than likely; it’s just a name I’d like Shero to choose on draft day.
Most of us don’t understand the X’s and O’s of hockey well enough to be able to comment on more than generalized ideas. I, myself, am of this ilk; I don’t understand the philosophy of hockey tactics more than the common fan. With that in mind, I went and discussed the offensive philosophy with my hockey guru, the coach of the local travel team. With that thought in mind, I have some suggestions for the Pens offensive philosophy.
The Pens run what is known as the umbrella offensive scheme which consists of two defensemen at the point, one forward on the wall, one forward beneath the blue line, and one forward in front of the net. What the Pens do, which is the essential problem, is that the forward in front of the net is anywhere between 10-15 feet away from the crease.
Now, if that forward moves into the crease, he causes more problems for the goalie and will draw more penalties. One just has to watch what the screener does to Fleury in games. It’s an effective weapon that the Pens don’t utilize enough. Players like Staal, Rupp, and Guerin should flourish in a system like that.
Another issue with the umbrella system the Pens run is that the cycle should include three players, the two forwards along the wall as well as the defenseman on that side. When the Pens run the cycle, the forward in front of the net jumps into the cycle instead of the defenseman and cause the problem as stated above.
Score. Score. Score.
Every Pens’ fan I have talked to about the offseason says the same thing, “We need top six wings,” and I couldn’t agree more. We have a plethora of grinding type forwards but very few pure scorers. This issue needs to be addressed immediately.
With the amount of firepower down the middle, the wings have suffered immensely. Crosby and Malkin need go-to players who can use their superior playmaking ability. There are several free agents that could provide the needed scoring for the top two lines.
Alexei Ponikarovsky could be a viable option if the price is right. His numbers weren’t all that flashy, but he still had over 20 goals and is under 30. Perhaps he has not hit his prime quite yet. In a better system of the umbrella, Poni would fill the need for the forward to screen the goalie.
Sergei Kostitsyn is another interesting free agent that would fill a void for the Pens. Sergei has been and underachieving forward for the Canadians but perhaps a change of scenery and the chance to play with fellow countryman Evgeni Malkin might keep Sergei on this side of the Atlantic.
Alexander Radulov is supposedly returning to the NHL, and playing with Olympic teammate Geno could give Pittsburgh the edge it needs to claim his services. Radulov will garner a fair amount of money, probably more than $6 million per season, but it would be worth it to get a legitimate scorer.
Colby Armstrong’s best performances came as a wing to captain and friend, Sidney Crosby. With Atlanta saying they will not resign Armstrong, I think a return is a distinct possibility. Crosby and Armstrong had a unique chemistry together that the Pens have been trying to duplicate with several different players. Armstrong wants $3 million+ per season, but maybe a discount could come into effect with the chance to play with Crosby again.
Another Russian who makes my list of potential signings/trades is Nikoli Filatov. Filatov, a Columbus Blue Jacket, spent last season in the KHL after having a falling out with management about playing in the AHL. With a disgruntled player, a trade is typically not too far after. Filatov is a great talent who might find his stride playing alongside Geno or Crosby.
Atlanta has another cast off who makes my list: Maxim Afinagenov. Afinagenov had a resurgence in Atlanta last year after several disappointing years in Buffalo. He is low risk, high reward as he signed for $800,000 last season and produced 61 points. A viable option if he doesn’t accept an offer from Atlanta.