Once again, Ray Shero doesn't disappoint.
Despite entering this year's free agency frenzy with a lot of question marks, Shero made the biggest splash on July 1st by revamping the Penguins defense into one of, if not the, deepest blue line units in the league.
By adding Paul Martin and Zbynek Michalek, the Penguins have a group of defensemen who are both offensively capable and defensively sound, and who can play the uptempo puck-pressure game that Dan Bylsma implemented when he arrived in February 2009.
To quote ESPN observer Pierre LeBrun, the Pens "can start printing Stanley Cup Final tickets for the new arena."
In a second bold move, Shero has laid the groundwork for the promotion of Jordan Staal to the second line, and shifted Evgeni Malkin from center to wing where he belongs. Freed up from the extra defensive duties, Malkin should return to his Conn Smythe form this year. Coupled with the pairing of Chris Kunitz and Sidney Crosby, the move gives the Pens as good a top four forward group as anyone in the league.
While it remains to be seen who fills the other spots, there are plenty of in-house options such as Pascal Dupuis, Max Talbot and Eric Tangradi.
Now that the overhaul is complete, the only job remaining is to round out the roster with either a third line center or another winger, and herein lies the question for Shero, what do the Pens need more?
Given the names still available; Rob Niedermeyer, Jeff Halpern and John Madden at center and Bill Guerin, Paul Kariya and Max Afinoganov at wing, among others, I would do the following:
1) Look in-house for someone to fill the third line center role.
Talbot, having begun his career in that role, could easily assume that spot. Although Penguins' fans have been spoiled with Jordan Staal in that role for the past few years, we need to remember that Talbot-types traditionally fill that role such as in the case of Kris Draper, Stu Barnes, and Bryan Trottier in his later years with the Penguins.
If the Pens choose to move Talbot back to his spot alongside Malkin on the second line, either Craig Adams and Mark Letestu could easily fill that role.
2) Find a way to get Tangradi out of Scranton.
Tangradi is the heir apparent to be the Penguins power forward, but is approaching the point where keeping him in the AHL will only delay his development. While he doesn't have to play top-six minutes, Tangradi needs to get more than an audition in Pittsburgh this year.
3) Bring in a veteran winger on a short-term, low-risk contract.
I have to admit that I am surprised that Afinogenov has not been more of a target for the Penguins to this point. He has great speed, is a proven scorer, and brings some Russian chemistry to the Penguins to replace the lost mentorship that Sergei Gonchar provided to Malkin. In addition, he may only command a small raise from his 1 year/800K deal with Atlanta.
While Kariya might seem like a great pick-up, I can't see how he would be that much of an upgrade at this point in his career.
By comparison, Dupuis has great speed and work ethic and scored as many goals (18) in a third and fourth line role as Kariya scored in top line minutes. What's more, Dupuis brings a lot more versatility to the table than Kariya.
While there are other options like Alexei Ponikarovsky or Niedermeyer, they will probably demand a multi-year deal or more money than the Penguins can or should afford.
That leaves the player who I feel gives the Pens the biggest upside for the least amount of money, Bill Guerin. While he will turn 40 this year, there are reasons other than sentimentality or loyalty for the Pens to bring him back for another year.
First of all, like it or not, Guerin led all Penguin wingers in goals with 21 goals in the regular season and scored nine points in 11 games in the playoffs. Even if you disregard his on and off-ice leadership, players who are 20+ goal scorers and contribute almost a point a game in the playoffs are hard to find, especially ones who are willing to grant a hometown discount.
That's why I hope that Shero is able to bring Guerin back for on a one-year deal for around $1.25M to $1.5M, which would leave enough cap room for a trade or possibly another UFA pickup on the cheap (Marek Svatos for example).
The fact remains that Guerin is the best viable option for the Pens, given his production and intangibles and his stated desire to perhaps finish his career in the new arena and his hometown.
That being said, I'm sure Shero will continue to push the right buttons and have this team back on top.